Friday, July 20, 2018

Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, Part III: Philosophy

Having thus demonstrated and explored the principally religious aspects of the case Jonathan Mayhew put forth in his Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, it remains now to discuss the extent to which his attempt to oppose an observance he deemed corrupt and un-Christian was in fact a deeply political statement about the nature of authority and the relationship between rulers and their subjects. Bearing in mind that the elements of Discourse that might fairly be identified as chiefly political or philosophical in nature do tend to flow out of statements or observations that were in turn explicitly religious, there is bound to be some degree of overlap between the convictions of Mayhew’s faith and his ideological leanings. Indeed, in Mayhew’s mind there was surely little difference between the rules he believed ought to govern either the spiritual or material circumstances of the human race. Attempting to explore these categories of thought in tandem, however, would surely make for something of a rambling muddle. The distinction that has here been drawn – while to some degree artificial – thus stems from a legitimate desire for organizational clarity. Mayhew himself might have found it a curious choice, but it would seem, under the circumstances, a necessary one.

That being said – and begging the forgiveness of those who perceive a plain contradiction in what follows – the core of Mayhew’s political rationale within the text of Discourse undeniably sprang from an attempt on his part to elucidate the true meaning of a particular passage from the Holy Bible.

The excerpt in question was the oft-cited Romans 13:1-8, an extract invariably deployed by regimes that claim to embody Christian piety while pursuing demonstrably un-Christian ends. In seeming preemptive answer to those whose ire might fairly have been aroused by his accusing the Church of England of supporting Charles I out of rank self-interest, Mayhew challenged the common interpretation of Romans as a blanket sanction for actions undertaken by rulers and governments of any stripe. To that end, he first cited the verses in question – notable among them the injunction, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be, are ordained by God” – and then commenced to separate the words themselves from what he regarded as their true and substantial meaning. First, Mayhew reminded his audience to pay heed to the context in which the relevant text was written. The author in question, Saint Paul (5-64/67), had set himself to addressing the nature of earthly authority for a very specific reason. At so early a period in the history of the Christian faith, it seemed, there existed converts who interpreted, “That liberty which the gospel promised” as pertaining to their material existence and thus, “Disowned subjection to the civil powers in being where they respectively lived [.]” Described elsewhere by Saint Peter as, “Them that–despise government–presumptuous are they, self-willed, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities [,]” these anarcho-Christians supposedly failed to understand the nature of Christ’s kingdom – described by Mayhew as being, “In a very plain and important sense […] not of this world” – and so became a nuisance to themselves and their fellow converts by applying the stain of insurrection to their as yet small and vulnerable community. In consequence, it appeared necessary to Saint Paul to explain to his fellow believers that acknowledging the supremacy of Christ over all earthly authorities did not practically absolve one from the responsibility of obedience to the same.

Mayhew then proceeded to draw the attention of his audience to certain key phrases within the cited text. Consider, he asked of them, Saint Paul’s assertion that, “Whosoever […] resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Did this not make plain that civil rule – in whatever form it may take – is the instrument of God’s will on Earth, and that to resist one was to resist the other? And then there was the apostle’s declaration that, “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil […] Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise for the same.” Was this not an affirmation that, “Even pagan rulers, are not, by the nature and design of their office, enemies and a terror to the good and virtuous actions of men,” and that it was accordingly needless to oppose a given civil authority, “When ye see the good end and intention of it?” Mayhew’s interest, it seemed, was in what he perceived to be the subtext of Romans 13, particularly as it related to the intention of God in granting his ordinance to civil rulers. Two further citations appeared to give answer to this inquiry.

But if thou do that which is evil,” Mayhew quoted Saint Paul as having written, “Be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is the minister of God, a revenger, to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” To the minister of the Old West Church, it seemed, this passage was clearly meant to affirm that civil rulers were not possessed of the means of punishment for reasons passing understanding. “They are,” he asserted, “By their office, not only the ministers of God for good to those that do well; but also his ministers to revenge, to discountenance and punish those that are unruly, and injurious to their neighbors.” When Mayhew next quoted Saint Paul as having declared that, “For this cause pay you tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing,” it was coupled to a kind of logical inverse of this same affirmation of purpose. “And here is a plain reason also why ye should pay tribute to them [,]” he explained accordingly,

For they are God’s ministers, exalted above the common level of mankind, not that they may indulge themselves in softness and luxury, and be entitled to the servile homage of their fellow-men; but that they may execute an office no less laborious than honorable; and attend continually upon the public welfare.

If the good had nothing to fear from civil rulers, Mayhew claimed, and the wicked every reason to feel alarm in offering opposition to the same, it must accordingly have followed that the ordinance and trust of God in these same earthly authorities was joined to his desire to protect one and punish the other. A civil authority that promoted justice and peace, therefore, was indeed a “minister of God” and thus deserving of obedience. And a ruler whose behavior fostered injustice and was “injurious to their neighbors” deserved nothing but reproach, for God would surely never deign to sanction those who would do evil in his name.

            Having thus sufficiently teased out what he regarded as the genuine intention behind Saint Paul’s admonition to always obey the civil authority, Mayhew then proceeded in the text of his Discourse to distill the relevant verses of Romans 13 into a relatively straightforward set of value statements. Notable among these various declarations was the bond he consistently perceived and affirmed between the duties of an office and the claim to its titles and dignities. “The end of magistracy is the good of civil society,” he accordingly affirmed, and, “There should be some persons vested with authority in society, for the well-being of it [.]” He also declared that, “The sole end of government [is] the happiness of society [,]” and that, “The true ground and reason of our obligation to be subject to the higher powers, is the usefulness of magistracy (when properly exercised) to human society, and its subserviency to the general welfare [.]” If the sentiment embodied in these statements appears in any way familiar to either longtime readers of this program or students of the European Enlightenment, there is ample reason for it. Though he arrived at this conviction in particular through an analysis of scripture rather than via the ruminations of abstract thought, the conviction here expressed by Mayhew as to the purpose of civil government bears an undeniable – and deeply significant – similarity to the political theory most recently explored – as of 1750 – by English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704).

            Locke, whose Two Treatises on Government was originally published in 1689, famously described therein the so-called “state of nature” in which mankind existed by default in the absence of any laws, governments, or civil institutions. While this state provided absolute freedom to all who dwelled within it – “All being kings [,]” as it were – it concurrently offered nothing in the way of security for one’s person or property. In the state of nature, therefore, power was the only source of legitimacy and the only guarantor of liberty. Seeking to extricate itself from this tenuous existence, Locke posited that mankind developed cooperative mechanisms by which a modicum of autonomy might be sacrificed by groups of individuals in exchange for an increase in the safety and comfort of all. In time these mechanisms took the form of increasingly complex civil societies which expanded, combined, and formalized to the point that they took on the aspect– by 17th century standards – of recognizable government. Complex though these administrations ultimately became, however, and in many ways self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, Locke affirmed that their central purpose never changed. The end of government, he asserted, was to protect and promote the liberty of the individual (within reason) and secure to them the enjoyment of their personal property. And while it was possible for monarchies, republics, and aristocracies alike to successfully achieve this aim, the regime that demonstrably failed to do so – though greed, corruption, cruelty, or neglect – was inherently illegitimate. The resulting “right of revolution” permitted – nay, obligated – the citizens of such a regime to remove their rulers by force of arms and replace them with those who appeared more likely to fulfill their responsibilities. The resulting arrangement of trust and obligation, check and balance was described by Locke as kind of “social contract.” 

            While Mayhew never used this specific phrase in Discourse to describe the relationship he believed was embedded in the text of Romans 13, his exploration of its significance and implications showed obvious parallels to Locke’s earlier construction. Attempting to introduce the beginnings of an argument against the kind of oppressive rule practiced by Charles I through the lens of scripture, for example, he posited to his audience that there were perhaps certain instances in which resistance rather than subjection to higher powers became necessary. “Some have thought it warrantable and glorious,” he thus claimed,

To disobey the civil powers in certain circumstances; and, in cases of very great general oppression, when humble remonstrances fail of having any effect; and when the publick welfare cannot be otherwise provided for and secured, to rise unanimously even against the sovereign himself, in order to redress their grievances; to vindicate their natural and legal rights: to break the yoke of tyranny, and free themselves and posterity from inglorious servitude and ruin.

Consider, again, some of the terminology Mayhew here chose to deploy. Like Locke, he affirmed that the paramount measure of the legitimacy for a ruler or regime was its ability to protect and promote “public welfare.” This being the fundamental and original purpose of government – i.e. the basis of the social contract – those that either failed to pursue it successfully or actively damaged it by their actions caused the obligation of seeking “redress” or “remonstrance” to once more devolve upon the public itself. Mayhew’s use of the phrase “natural and legal rights” also served to echo the doctrine of authority earlier espoused by Locke. He believed that natural law guaranteed to every individual a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property regardless of the authority or government to which they were subject. Legal rights in turn served the end of natural rights by harnessing state institutions to the purpose of securing individual liberty.

            That Mayhew approved of this formulation was made evident by his subsequent citation of several historical instances in which tyrannical rulers were removed or overthrown by the very people whose rights they sought to suppress. “It was upon this principle [,]” he thus affirmed,

That Tarquin was expelled from Rome; and Julius Cesar, the conqueror of the world, and the tyrant of his country, cut off in the senate house. It was upon this principle, that king Charles I, was beheaded before his own banqueting house. It was upon this principle, that king James II was made to fly that country which he aim’d at enslaving: And upon this principle was that revolution brought about, which had been so fruitful of happy consequences to Great-Britain.

The citation of these four figures – Tarquin, Caesar, Charles, and James – was both individually and collectively significant. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (??? – 495 BC), also known as Tarquin the Proud, was the legendary seventh and final king of Rome whose oppressive treatment of his subjects was so unbearable as to trigger the popular uprising that led to the creation of the Roman Republic. Caesar (100-44 BC), of course, was the Roman statesman and general whose actions helped bring about the downfall of that same republic, while Charles I and James II were kings of England whose respective reigns came to abrupt ends amid protest, civil war, and revolution. While each of these men on their own would seem to represent the kind of oppressive ruler Mayhew believed it was just to overthrow – with James in particular looming large in the contemporary Anglo-American mythos of responsible government and legitimate resistance to authority – grouping them together provided for a somewhat clearer definition of his philosophical sensibilities.

Tarquin, it seemed, whose role in classical Roman history was to be an almost cartoonishly evil figure against which the virtue of the republic could be contrasted, was of the same category to Mayhew as Julius Caesar, who was of the same category as Charles I, who was of the same category as James II. While in point of fact these men wrought different levels of damage upon the institutions and populations under the authority – Caesar and James seem particularly far apart in that regard – the minister of the Old West Church evidently perceived in them a moral equivalency that belied the true extent of their transgressions. As his Discourse would have it, violating the natural and legal rights of the individual was the worst possible crime that any ruler could commit, and one which consistently justified the overthrow of the same. It thus mattered little that Tarquin purportedly had several of his relatives killed so that he could ascend the throne while Charles I perpetrated the comparatively mild offense of seeking to tax his subjects without the permission of Parliament. One was as bad as the other in the eyes of Jonathan Mayhew, and as undeserving of obedience and loyalty. Bearing this conviction in mind, his criticism of the veneration of Charles I’s execution would appear to be grounded upon philosophy as well as faith. If men like Tarquin, Caesar, and James II remained objects of dishonor to the mainstream of contemporary Anglo-American society – and indeed they did – it would doubtless follow that Charles, their fellow tyrant, was no more deserving of reverence than they were. Definitive though this may seem, Mayhew’s effective combination of scripture and Enlightenment philosophy found even more pointed expression in the section of his Discourse which drew a distinction between those who claimed the title of ruler and those who earned it.

Yet still expanding upon the significance of Romans 13 and the supposed intentions of its author, Mayhew asserted that anything like a close and careful study of the words put down by Saint Paul would show that his exhortation to submit oneself to civil authority, “Be such an one as concludes not in favor of submission to all who bear the title of rulers, in common; but only, to those who actually perform the duty of rulers, by exercising reasonable and just authority, for the good of human society.” While the similarity between this conviction – rulers are only legitimate if they rule justly – and that which formed the core of Locke’s right of revolution – governments are only legitimate if they serve the general welfare – is plainly evident, Mayhew’s perspective was manifestly less secular. Whereas Locke emphasized the primacy of natural law, Mayhew grounded his argument upon a deep respect and reverence for what he believed to be the will of God. Granted, Mayhew did believe in the primacy of natural law and in the necessity of its protection by any ruler or government who sought to claim the loyalty of their subjects. But he often seemed to locate its source as being explicitly scriptural. “The apostle’s argument for submission to rulers,” he thus affirmed,

Is wholly built and grounded upon a presumption that they do in fact answer this character; and is of no force at all upon supposition of the contrary. If rulers are a terror to good works, and not to the evil; if they are not ministers for good to society, but for evil and distress, by violence and oppression; if they execute wrath upon sober, peaceable persons, who do their duty as members of society […] it is plain that the apostle’s argument for submission does not reach them; they are not the same, but different persons from those whom he characterizes; and who must be obeyed according to his reasoning.

Though it seemed to amount to the same thing – i.e. the coupling of political legitimacy to outward respect for a set of freedoms and behaviors – Locke’s identification of the rights in question was more abstract and theoretical than Mayhew’s.

The former’s conception of the social contract was built upon the supposition that at some point in the early history of mankind there existed a state of nature in which every individual was sovereign, and that humanity’s extrication from this condition was voluntary and conditional. Logical this may have been, but even for the literate Anglo-American of the late 18th century it was a rather heady concept. By comparison, Mayhew posited the existence of essentially the same relationship between ruler and subject using scripture as a moral and structural basis. In so doing, rather than ask his audience to accept a theory of sovereignty and human social dynamics almost wholly unconnected to their daily lived existence, he effectively tied the success of his theory of authority and legitimacy to the status of the Bible as the last and definitive word of Lord. The resulting relationship – possessing three focal points (ruler, subject, and God) instead of two (ruler and subject) – could not have but struck the members of Mayhew’s congregation somewhat closer to home than the abstract conjecture of a long-dead Englishmen. This isn’t to say that Locke was unknown in contemporary British America. Certain segments of the middle and upper classes thereof would soon enough prove exceptionally responsive to the kinds of claims that Locke had attempted to advance in 1689, and as a whole Americans were as conscious of the significance and value of their rights as any subject of the British Crown. That being said, 1750 was a fair distance even from 1765, let alone the tumultuous 1770s. Having little reason to concern themselves with the origin of their sovereign rights or the legitimacy of their rulers, the majority of Mayhew’s fellow colonists, or his fellow residents of Boston, or even his fellow attendees of the Old West Church were doubtless better attuned to their faith at the time that Discourse was first delivered than to much more than the basic contours of Lockean political philosophy.

Clearly Mayhew was an exception to this tendency, or else he arrived at almost exactly the same conclusion as John Locke by some miraculous coincidence. In light of his education at Harvard College and at Aberdeen in Scotland – and his obvious interest in the kinds of questions Locke sought to answer at the end of the previous century – the former would seem the likeliest explanation. Bearing this in mind, Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission might fairly be characterized – at least in part – as an attempt by Jonathan Mayhew to make Lockean social contract theory digestible for an otherwise uninitiated audience by fusing it to the unquestionable moral authority of scripture. The advantage of this approach would seem quite plain. Rather than ask the members of his flock to first understand that humanity exited the state of nature by its own volition – thus provisionally delegating sovereignty rather than ceding it forever – Mayhew need only have depended upon the piety each of them had acquired over a lifetime of moral education. Thus he could successfully claim, without necessarily having to explain why, that,

Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief. They are not God’s ordinance, or God ministers, in any other sense than as it is by his permission and providence, that they are exalted to bear rule; and as magistracy duly exercised and authority duly applied, in the enacting and executing good laws,–laws attempered and accommodated to the common welfare of the subjects, must be supposed to be aggregable to the will of the beneficent author and supreme Lord of the universe; whose kingdom ruleth over all; and whose tender mercies are over all his works.

God here carried the weight of moral condemnation in a way that “natural law” almost certainly could not. Particularly according to the sensibilities of mid-18th century New England Congregationalism, there could be no uncertainty as to the love God held for those who did good in his name, the depth of his desire for humanity to live in peace and harmony, and the magnitude of his wrath towards those who did injury to their fellow man in pursuit of greed, ambition, or power. Mayhew’s genius – if genius be an apt descriptor – was in harnessing this basic assumption about the nature of God to an argument against unquestioning submissiveness to political authority.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, Part II: Faith

Even a cursory examination of Jonathan Mayhew’s September 30th, 1750 sermon makes abundantly clear that there are two sides to the effort put forth therein. One is explicitly religious, the other unflinchingly political. And while they are most certainly intertwined, with one flowing out of and feeding into the other, it is nevertheless possible – and for the purpose of the present discussion, preferable – to distinguish and explore them each in turn. To that end, and in recognition of Mayhew's role as a minister, let us begin by discussing the primarily religious dimension of his Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission.

The pastor of Boston’s Old West Church, it here bears recalling, was a member of the Congregationalist faith. His perspective on matters theological and moral, in consequence, was generally defined by both an embrace of autonomy and self-sufficiency – embodied by the independence of the individual congregation – and a rejection of hierarchy and centralization. As Mayhew was descended from English Puritan migrants who came to America in the 1630s seeking a reprieve from the repressive policies of Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, this very much stands to reason. Though the Congregationalists of colonial Massachusetts had arguably lost some of the rigidity of their forebears, they remained dedicated to the notion that the multiplication of clerical offices and councils – in the form of bishops and archbishops, synods and conferences – succeeded only in fostering corruption and autocracy.

These tenets are very much in evidence within the themes and motifs that Mayhew chose to emphasize in his sermon. The commemoration of the execution of Charles I being the subject at hand, Mayhew sough to deny the validity of the king’s status as a martyr by giving evidence of his having done nothing to earn the esteem of God as a consequence of his supposedly just and pious rule. Naturally, Mayhew’s status as a Non-Conformist Protestant inclined him to conceive of a standard of merit for God’s esteem somewhat at odds with that which was nurtured by the supporters of King Charles the Martyr. In fairness, however, a number of his criticisms were rather generously devised – for the perspective of the likely celebrants of January 30th, at any rate. The support and affection which Charles evinced during his life for Catholicism, for example, was seized upon more than once by Mayhew as proof of the king’s unsuitability for sainthood.

Charles had married a Catholic princess of the royal house of France, Mayhew offered – one Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), described by Mayhew as, “A true daughter of that true mother of harlots [,]” – and respectfully requested dispensation from the Pope to do so. Later, during the period that Parliament was prorogued and the king governed on his own authority, he, “Took all opportunities to encourage the papists, and to promote them to the highest offices of honor and trust [,]” and was otherwise so, “Well affected” towards the Catholic faith that he would have been, “Very willing to unite Lambeth and Rome.” Lambeth, as it happened, was the district of London in which the Archbishop of Canterbury resided. Mayhew’s accusation, therefore, was that Charles was so comfortable with Catholic practice and doctrine – or otherwise so fond of the Catholics in his family and his retinue – that he would have agreed to reverse the English Reformation and merge the Church of England back into the Catholic fold. Building upon this fairly scurrilous accusation, Mayhew further claimed that Charles had, “Abetted the horrid massacre in Ireland, in which two hundred thousand Protestants were butchered by the roman catholics [,] and that he, “Assisted in the extirpating the French protestants at Rochelle [.]” While the specific attribution of these gruesome incidents to the intention of Charles is somewhat arguable – the Irish Protestants in question were killed by their Catholic neighbors during a period of disorder that followed a Catholic uprising in 1641 while the Huguenots who controlled the French city of La Rochelle surrendered to the forces of Louis XIII (1601-1643) after three failed relief expeditions dispatched from England – Mayhew’s aim was clearly not. In presenting these examples, he doubtless hoped his audience would begin to wonder how Charles I could possibly have been declared a saint by the Church of England when his actions had so injured English Protestants and offered such aid to the Catholic faith.

Though it might seem rather misguided now to attribute so much importance to a few gestures of goodwill and tolerance, Mayhew was most certainly correct in assuming in 1750 that most of the people who either heard or read his sermon would feel as he did about the apparent religious sympathies of Charles I. Throughout much of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Roman Catholicism was subject to intense suspicion and institutional persecution in England, Scotland, and Ireland. From the time of the first schism between the English Church and Rome – begun by Henry VIII (1491-1547) and solidified under Elizabeth I (1533-1603) – the civil rights of Catholics were severely and repeatedly curtailed and more than one conspiracy resulted from Catholic-led attempts to reverse the effects of the English Reformation – i.e. the Throckmorton Plot (1583), the Babington Plot (1587), the Gunpowder Plot (1605), etc. By 1750 it was accordingly the height of orthodoxy in mainstream British socio-political discourse to express disdain for Catholicism, to decry it as a religion of slavery and autocracy, and to characterize its adherents as plotters and heretics. This was as true among people like Mayhew and the members of his congregation – who would themselves have been subject to many of the same civil restrictions under British law as professed Roman Catholics – as it was among the mainline Anglicans who recognized January 30th, their many doctrinal differences notwithstanding.

As to why, then, the Anglican Church would choose to canonize and venerate a man whose sympathies had clearly aligned with people it avowed as its enemies, Mayhew had indeed hit upon a cogent line of inquiry. Sympathetic though contemporary Anglicans may have been, however, to his clear disdain for Catholicism, they surely would not have been so welcoming of the explanation he provided.

On first blush, there indeed seemed to be a number of reasons that might have otherwise disinclined the Anglican Church from heralding Charles I as a saint and martyr. Notwithstanding his aforementioned sympathy for Catholicism and Catholics, he more than once either profaned some aspect of Christian worship or behaved in a way that was unbecoming of a Christian sovereign. Of the latter, Mayhew notably cited the fact that Charles, “Levied many taxes upon the people without the consent of parliament [and] imprisoned great numbers of the principal merchants and gentry for not paying them [,]” and that he, “Erected, or at least revived, several new and arbitrary courts, in which the most unheard-of barbarities were committed with his knowledge and approbation [.]” Non-Conformist Protestants were not alone in suffering the consequences of these actions, particularly as it related to unrepresentative taxation. Indeed, if Parliament was intended to represent the whole of the people of England, then Charles had paid insult to every one of his subjects by attempting to sideline the national legislature and rob it of one of its fundamental prerogatives. A specific piece of evidence Mayhew offered for this attitude came in the form of a response Charles supposedly delivered upon complaint that he was too closely abiding the counsel of corrupt and untrustworthy ministers. Addressing the Parliament whose authority he had effectively sought to usurp, the king was said to reply, “In a rough, domineering, unprincely manner that he wondered any one should be so foolish and insolent as to think that he would part with the meanest of his servants upon their account [.]” Surely this was not behavior befitting of a saint? Surely a ruler who so callously disregards the accustomed liberties of his people could not possibly claim to have some aspect of Christ dwelling within him?

Mayhew, for his part, did not think so. Nor did he believe that Charles’ demonstrated disregard for the sanctity of the Sabbath spoke well of the man’s fitness for veneration. The incident in question he accordingly cited revolved around the publication and promotion of a document originally circulated during the reign of Charles’ father, James I (1566-1625). The so-called Declaration of Sports (1617) was originally issued as a rebuke to early Puritan agitation against what members of that sect perceived to be widespread disregard for one of God’s holy commandments. Rejecting Puritan Sabbatarianism – i.e. the practice of abstaining from all activities on Sundays other than prayer and contemplation – James decreed that a number of activities – including archery, dancing,  and various festival observances – were permissible upon the Sabbath once the individual in question had attended divine service. Trivial though it might now seem – mandating, as it did, whether or not a person could go bowling or skip off to the dancehall after church – the gesture was intended to be one of control. James sought to undercut Puritan claims to moral superiority and used his position as Supreme Governor of the Church of England to do so. The reissue of the Declaration in 1633 at the hands of Charles and the aforementioned William Laud was doubtless motivated by much the same sentiment. Indeed, the king was so keen to encourage a rejection of Puritan censoriousness that he ordered it read by the relevant clergymen after every Church of England service on pain of being removed from their position. Granting that Mayhew had perhaps greater reason to see this action in particular as a kind of personal rebuke – being a descendant of the Puritans whom the Declaration had originally targeted – he managed to frame the issue in terms to which most any Christian was capable of responding. “What of saintship is there [,]” he asked his congregation, “In encouraging people to profane the Lord’s Day?” Once again, it seemed a fair enough counterpoint to the elevation of Charles I that might reasonably have given pause to even some Anglicans.

It was at this point in the progression of Mayhew’s central argument in Discourse that he cast off any semblance of sympathy for or fellow feeling with the membership of the Anglican Church. Having demonstrated that in spite of his plainly illiberal and impious behavior, the Church of England had determined to canonize Charles anyway, declare him a martyr, and designate the day of his execution an occasion for fasting and repentance, Mayhew was given to conclude that the relevant course of action stemmed from two sources having little at all to do with the relevant monarch’s character as a Christian ruler. First, the national attitude at the time of both Charles’s designation as a saint and martyr and the commemoration of his execution was marked by what Mayhew somewhat uncharitably – if not altogether inaccurately – described as a kind of, “Mad and hair brain’d loyalty [,]” to the recently-restored Charles II. At that time, he wrote,

All were desirous of making their court to him; of ingratiating themselves; and of making him forget what had been done in opposition to his father, so as not to revenge it. To effect this, they ran into the most extravagant professions of affection and loyalty to him […] Thus they soothed and flattered their new king, at the expence of their liberties:–And were ready to yield up freely to Charles II, all that enormous power, which they had justly resisted Charles I for usurping to himself.

The veneration of January 30th, therefore, was in no small part a consequence of the court politics of the 1660s, and Charles I more an instrument of flattery than a deserving object of adoration, worship, or pious contemplation. Convincing though this reasoning may have been, however, it addressed but half the issue. The political climate of the Restoration explained why Charles I had been canonized to begin with, but not why his execution continued to be a mandated occasion for repentance and meditation a century after the thing had occurred.

            It was at this point that Mayhew made known the true object of his sermon. The issue at hand was not just the questionable qualifications of Charles I for martyrdom – though Mayhew and his congregation certainly had cause to find fault with the practice – but rather what the veneration of this man said about the authority that had sanctioned it. After first hinting somewhat snidely that the Anglican Church must have been desperate indeed to desire the elevation of one such as Charles – “One would be apt to suspect that that church must be but poorly stocked with saints and martyrs, which is forced to adopt such enormous sinners into her kalendar, in order to swell the number” – he at last and at length described precisely the rationale that appeared to him most convincing. “In plain english,” he explained,

There seems to have been an impious bargain struck up betwixt the scepter and the surplice, for enslaving both the bodies and souls of men. The king appeared to be willing that the clergy should do what they would,–set up a monstrous hierarchy like that of Rome,­–a monstrous inquisition like that of Spain or Portugal,–or any thing else which their own pride, and the devil’s malice, could prompt them to: Provided always, that the clergy would be tools to the crown; that they would make the people believe, that kings had God’s authority for breaking God’s law; that they had a commission from heaven to seize the estates and lives of their subjects at pleasure; and that it was a damnable sin to resist them, even when they did such things as deserved more than damnation.

The continued recognition of Charles I as a saint and martyr was thus to Mayhew’s reckoning the end result of a corrupt accord between the Crown and the Church. During the king’s life, in return for his indulgence in matters of doctrine and observance, the priests and prelates, “Caused many of the pulpits throughout the nation, to ring with the divine absolute, indefeasible rights of kings [.]” And in death, in return for services rendered, these same clerics made Charles a saint, “Not because he was in his life, a good man, but a good churchman; not because he was a lover of holiness, but the hierarchy; not because he was a friend to Christ, but the Craft.”

            Brazen though the attribution may have been of Charles I’s undeserved veneration to a kind of corrupt bargain between the monarch in question and the Church of England, Mayhew was in truth only hewing to the tenets and the impulses of his faith. As a Congregationalist minister descended from Massachusetts Puritans, he was to a large extent bound to perceive tyranny and mischief as being inherent in any hierarchy built upon matters of faith. Furthermore, in light of the degree to which he and his coreligionists were held in disregard by the mainstream of the Church of England – by way, among other things, of the use of labels like Dissenter and Non-Conformist – it was perhaps only natural that Mayhew should have likewise projected upon ever major decision of the Anglican polity a degree of pettiness and materialism which he believed to be fundamentally un-Christian. In point of fact, Discourse is veritably peppered with such affirmations either of the injustice of non-Anglican persecution or the venality intrinsic to religious hierarchy.

Indeed, Mayhew introduced his January 30th sermon by ruminating upon both subjects in turn. Explaining to his congregation why it was he turned his mind to the topic of King Charles the Martyr, he noted that the penultimate day of the first month of the year seemed often to be an occasion during which, “The dissenters from the established church [are] represented, not only as schismatics, (with more of triumph than of truth, and of choler than christianity) but also as persons of seditious, traitorous and rebellious principles [.]” Being once such supposed “schismatic,” Mayhew was understandably interested to explore and explain the origins of the observance in question. And, he continued,

GOD be thanked one may, in any part of the british dominions, speak freely (if a decent regard be paid to those in authority) both of government and religion; and even give some broad hints, that he is engaged on the side of Liberty, the BIBLE and Common Sense, in opposition to Tyranny, PRIEST-CRAFT and Non-sense, without being in danger either of the bastile or the inquisition.

It is difficult to say to what degree Mayhew was speaking ironically when he claimed it was possible to speak freely of government and religion without fear “in any part of the british dominions” – whether he believed it to be true, or what he meant precisely by the phrase “a decent regard […] to those in authority.” What is plain, however, is the degree to which he identified the Anglican Church as his enemy. “PRIEST-CRAFT” being in effect a euphemism for the episcopal hierarchy of the Church of England, Mayhew thus Anglicanism as being of a kind with tyranny and nonsense while his cause was one aligned with “Liberty, the BIBLE and Common Sense.”

            The palpable hostility Mayhew here evinced for the Anglican Church was repeated more than once over the length his January 30th sermon. Characterizing the species of tyranny Charles I attempted to introduce during his reign, for example, as a veritable “drop in the bucket” which, in time, “Like a mighty torrent, or the raging waves of the sea […] bears down all before it, and deluges whole countries and empires [,]” he thereafter cautioned against allowing religious authority to pursue a similar course. To Mayhew’s thinking, it seemed, “People have no security against being unmercifully priest-ridden, but by keeping all imperious BISHOPS, and other CLERGYMEN who love to ‘lord it over God’s heritage,’ from getting their foot into the stirrup at all.” Again, the use of words like “priest,” “bishop,” and “clergymen” were intended to be pejorative references to the hierarchy of the Church of England. Further on in the course of his harangue against the veneration of an undeserving king, Mayhew’s sense of revulsion became bitterer still. Positing, he acerbically claimed, a purely hypothetical scenario – “It is no matter how far it is from any thing which has, in fact, happened in the world” – he proceeded to lay before his audience a particularly venomous critique of the supposed materialism and worldliness of the Anglican priesthood.

            “Suppose then,” he began, “it was allowed, in general, that the clergy were an useful order of men; that they ought to be esteemed very highly in love for their words sake; and to be decently supported by those whom they serve, the labourer being worthy of his reward.” Again, recalling that most dissenting faiths rejected episcopalianism and that Catholicism was a political non-entity in contemporary British life, “clergy” could only be meant to refer to the priesthood of the Church of England. “Suppose farther,” Mayhew continued,

That a number of Reverend and Right Reverend Drones, who worked not; who preached, perhaps, but once a year, and then, not the gospel of Jesus Christ; but the divine rights of tythes;–the dignity of their offices as ambassadors of Christ, the equity of sine cures, and a plurality of benefices;–the excellency of the devotions in that prayer book, which some of them hired chaplains to use for them;–or some favourite point of church tyranny, and antichristian usurpation; suppose such men as these, spending their lives in effeminacy, luxury and idleness; (or when they were not idle, doing that which is worse than idleness; suppose such men) should, merely by the merit or ordination and consecration, and a peculiar, odd habit, claim great respect and reverence from those whom they civilly called the beasts of the laiety [.]

The sheer multitude of insults and aspersions here offered speaks to the depths of Mayhew’s loathing. Not only did he refer to the prelates of the Anglican Church as “Right Reverend Drones,” but he accused them of caring only for tithes – a kind of religious taxation – sinecures – patronage positions entailing little if any actual work – and benefices – grants of land in exchange for spiritual services. He also notably accused them of spending their lives in “effeminacy, luxury and idleness,” and cast doubt upon the efficacy of ordination and consecration as a means of qualifying a given individual to receive the “respect and reverence” of the lay community. The cumulative result of these slights being an image of intense avarice, sloth, and immorality, it would seem little wonder that Mayhew was willing to accuse the Church of England of conspiracy and corruption as it related to the elevation of Charles I to the status of martyr and saint. Being already convinced of the complete lack of righteousness and integrity within the priesthood thereof, it would surely have seemed to him a very short leap indeed to understand the relationship between the executed king and the Anglican Church as being at root transactional and material. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, Part I: Context

As noted previously in this series, there has been – and continues to be – some debate among historians of the period as to the precise timeframe of the American Revolution. While conventional wisdom would have it that the thing started in 1775 and ended in 1783, even a moment’s thought would recall that these dates actually conform to the commencement and conclusion of the Revolutionary War. Certainly this conflict lies at the very center of America’s revolutionary saga, acting as both crucible and catalyst for the personal, political, and philosophical horizons of an entire generation, but it, too, flowed into and out of something larger. With this admission, however – that the Revolution was bigger than the war that bears its name – things become slippery. When did the Revolution begin if not in 1775? Is 1774 the answer, when the First Continental Congress held its inaugural session in Philadelphia? Or is it 1765, during which the Stamp Act Congress met in New York City? Maybe 1764, when the Sugar Act was passed and the first rumblings of discontent rippled through British American society? Or perhaps one ought to go back as far as 1689, when the Bill of Rights was approved by Parliament and the “rights of Englishmen” were firmly laid down. In truth, there would seem to be valid cases for each of these dates, just as 1787, 1803, or even 1815 might reasonably be offered as valid end markers for the often discordant processes that gave birth to the United States of America. Bearing all this in mind – that there likely isn’t one answer so much as many potential answers, or perhaps more broadly that the Revolution was never as neat and tidy as we might like to imagine – let’s talk for a moment about something that happened in the year 1750.

There was a church in Boston then – still is, in fact, though it has since been rebuilt – in the West End of the city on Cambridge Street. It was a Congregationalist house of worship – a Calvinist faith in large part descended from 17th century New England Puritanism – attended at the time by a twenty-nine year old minister named Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766). On January 30th, 1750, Mayhew delivered a sermon which he judged to be fitting to the occasion – one which he doubtless hoped would inspire those who heard it to understand certain aspects of the world in which they lived in a new and different way. In this he was quite successful, judged solely by the tenor of contemporary accounts. Transcribed and printed in Boston under the rather verbose title, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, it was purported by local resident John Adams (1735-1826) to have been, “Read by everybody.” Subsequent editions were even produced and sold in London in 1752 and 1767. The latter outcome is particularly surprising given Mayhew’s liberal theological leanings and his avowed antipathy for the Anglican Establishment. Its popularity, of course – if not necessarily the acceptance of its central thesis – may have had something to do with its subject matter. The occasion that Mayhew was responding to was the one hundredth anniversary of the execution of Charles I (1600-1649), and in particular the contemporary mainstream Anglican practice of marking the day with fasting and repentance. Charles was not a figure worth revering, Mayhew argued. Indeed, his punishment was warranted by his behavior.

Mayhew deployed scripture to this effect, arguing that the Bible did not provide cover for tyranny any more than its various passages could be fairly applied out of context to support that which the Almighty most obviously opposed. God wanted all of his children to live in peace, health, and security, he asserted, and accordingly had no patience for autocrats like Charles. By oppressing his people, this so-called martyr-king had violated the will of the Lord and sown the seeds of his own destruction. As sermons go, this would have been powerful enough as a description of the blessed wrath which even the most elevated of sinners could expect for their misdeeds. But there was yet more to what Mayhew had to say on the matter. His case was not that God had removed Charles from the throne – and, in turn, from the mortal plain of existence – in punishment for his sins. Rather, it was that Charles’ behavior towards his people had rendered his claim to their loyalty and obedience null and void and that their subsequent overthrow of his reign was not only justified but constituted something of a moral imperative.

The influence of English political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was strong in this argument. Just as the author of Two Treatises on Government had argued in 1689 that rulers who no longer served their essential purpose – i.e. promoting order in and protecting the liberties of the community they claimed to rule – could be legitimately overthrown, so Mayhew asserted in 1750 that the validity of a law, a magistrate, or a government was contingent on its promoting the happiness and prosperity that God desired for the whole of humanity. Granted, the minister of Boston’s Old West Church did not explicitly acknowledge the similarity of conviction between his argument and Locke’s. But the parallel was most certainly there, marking the deeply political resonance of Mayhew’s sermon. High Anglicans and High Tories were alike the targets of his ardent disapproval, and his zeal seemed to flow out of both the principles of his faith – Congregationalism being a persecuted sect in Britain – as well as his Whig political leanings. Mayhew’s Discourse thus skillfully blended the sacred and the profane – the Bible and political philosophy – in a way that was both demonstrably popular in its era and arguably prophetic as to certain events that loomed on the horizon. Not only did it seem to prefigure, at a time when Anglo-American relations were enjoying perhaps their last sustained period of harmony and concordance, the need for a durable argument against unconditional obedience to authority, but also it embodied the combination of religious and philosophical conviction that would yet form a cornerstone of the Patriot rationale of resistance.

Having hopefully established that his Discourse is indeed worth exploring in depth, let us now say a few words about this Mayhew fellow himself as well as the context from which he emerged. Born October 8th, 1720 on Martha’s Vineyard, Jonathan Mayhew was the scion of a Puritan migrant family that was among the first to settle the coastal islands of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1630s. His father, Experience Mayhew (1673-1758) was a Congregationalist missionary and minister who preached among the local Wampanoag people for over six decades, while his mother, Thankful Hinkley, was the daughter of Thomas Hinkley (1618-1706), the last governor of the Plymouth Colony before its merger into the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Doubtless influenced by the dedication of his forebears to the spiritual and material wellbeing of their fellow man, Jonathan likewise pursued a life in the ministry. To that end he attended Harvard College between 1744 and 1749 and then received a doctorate of divinity from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Harvard, at that time in its history, was in the midst of a lengthy period of struggle between the traditionalist and liberal sects within its faculty. This environment, spurred in large part by the ongoing, continent-wide Protestant religious revival subsequently labeled “the First Great Awakening,” was surely a major influence on Mayhew’s theological and philosophical leanings, encouraging as it did a spirit of inquiry and activism. His time at Aberdeen is likewise noteworthy for having taken place in the middle of an era of scientific and philosophical innovation since described as a “Scottish Enlightenment” on par with contemporary trends in mainland Europe. Doubly educated in settings characterized by greater-than-average intellectual dynamism, Jonathan Mayhew was thus particularly inclined, upon the assumption of his duties at Boston’s Old West Church, to question both the spiritual and theoretical underpinnings of the reigning socio-religious order.

A significant element of that order, it turned out, was the cult of King Charles the Martyr. Though very much a product of the Restoration (1660), during which time – as Mayhew himself rather tarty remarked in his sermon – both Parliament and the public as a whole tended to be more than usually deferential to the monarchy in general and Charles II (1630-1685) in particular, the commemoration of the execution of Charles I remained a “state service” in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer until the middle of the 19th century. In consequence, from the early 1660s onward, the title of the Church of England service for the 30th of January read,

To be used yearly on the Thirtieth of January,
Being the Day of the Martyrdom of the Blessed King CHARLES the First;
to implore the mercy of God, that neither the Guilt of that sacred and innocent Blood, nor those other sins, by which God was provoked to deliver up both us and our King into the hands of cruel and unreasonable men, may at any time hereafter be visited upon us or our posterity.

While the sentiment here expressed was chiefly the product of – and intended to appeal to – High Tory sensibilities, January 30th remained a mandated Anglican observance alongside the likes of November 5th (the anniversary of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605) and May 29th (the anniversary of the restoration of Charles II). As to how exactly this came to be, the answer would seem to lie in large part with the publication of a rather curious piece of socio-political propaganda called Eikon Basilike.

            Its title being Greek for “royal portrait,” Eikon was represented at the time of its first appearance in 1649 as the final testament of the lately executed Charles I. It was purported to have been written by the then-imprisoned monarch during his confinement at Carisbrook Castle on the Isle of Wight between 1647 and 1649, though this was impossible to confirm, and detailed the late king’s forgiveness of his executioners, his steadfast believe in the prerogatives of his office, and the personal and spiritual importance he continued to attach – even in the face of death – to the episcopal structure of the Church of England. The document presented Charles, in prose intended to elicit emotion rather than establish a firm and rigorous intellectual justification, as being at once steadfast and penitent, unwavering in his belief in monarchical authority and remorseful only for the sacrifices he had been forced to make to satisfy the demands of Parliament. In light of the freshness of the shock that still surrounded Charles’ execution – Eikon first saw print a mere ten days after the king was beheaded at Whitehall Palace – this appeal to the sentiment of a people yet still in the midst of an exceedingly tumultuous social and political climate was particularly well devised. In spite of official disapproval by the notoriously heavy-handed governments of the subsequent Commonwealth (1649-1653) and Protectorate (1653-1659) of England, Eikon went through almost forty editions in its first year of print alone, occasioned a rebuttal from poet and Commonwealth partisan John Milton (1608-1674) – the poorly-received Eikonoklastes – and was even restructured and set to music in 1657. Following the aforementioned restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 – in large part a consequence of the chaos that followed the death of English head of state Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) – this widespread sense of public sympathy was finally given official sanction with the Church of England’s canonization of Charles I in 1660 and the memorialization of his execution in 1662. 
            Granting that all of these events occurred some sixty years before Jonathan Mayhew was even born – and in a land three thousand miles distant from his home in Martha’s Vineyard – he nonetheless had ample reason to rankle at the mere concept of Charles I as a saint and a martyr in the service of God. As a Non-Conformist Protestant minister of the Congregationalist faith, Mayhew would already have been disinclined to favor any aspect of Anglican worship which appeared in substance to resemble Roman Catholicism. Charles’ elevation to sainthood and his commemoration as a martyr both fit this description. At the same time, being descended from Puritans who migrated to New England in the 1630s to escape the oppressive religious policies of Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud (1573-1645) would have doubtless inclined Mayhew to view the reign of Charles I – who appointed Laud in 1633 – as having been particularly repressive and torturous for those who refused to adhere to tenets of the orthodox Anglian faith. As it happened, religious non-conformity was often harshly punished under the authority of Archbishop Laud though the use of the Court of High Commission and the Star Chamber – both extremely powerful judicial bodies answerable only to the monarch – with regular punishments including being whipped, branded, pilloried – i.e. being shackled by the neck and hands as a form of public humiliation – or cropped – i.e. having one’s ears forcibly removed.

In 1637, evidently hoping to export this draconian, state-sponsored form of Anglicanism into Scotland, Charles used his authority as nominal head of the Scottish Church to introduce a new psalter that was nearly identical to the English Book of Common Prayer. Having not been consulted beforehand, the Scottish Parliament and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland essentially revolted, with the latter going so far as to abolish episcopacy – i.e. the rule of bishops – and declare the national church a Presbyterian polity governed by elders and deacons. Charles responded by declaring Scotland to be in a state of rebellion and spent the next three years attempting to assert his will by force of arms. Not only did the resulting campaign involve the raising and funding of armies without the consent of Parliament – whose members had not met since 1629 – but it also saw the king dismiss the first assembly of the commons of England summoned in eleven years after sitting for only a month. The second Parliament called in 1640 – the so-called “Long Parliament” – proceeded to imprison Laud and the Earl of Strafford (1593-1641), Charles’ Lord Deputy of Ireland and close advisor, hamstrung the king’s ability to dismiss its members in 1641, and eventually took up arms against the authority of the Crown in 1642.

The aggressive religious policy of Charles and Laud was at the center of this series of escalating incidents, and it accordingly stood to reason that the core of the resulting opposition to his reign came from among his Non-Conformist Protestant subjects. English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians in particular proved themselves especially ardent in their hostility to Charles’ fleeting attempts to maintain the moral and practical basis for his rule, and enthusiastically participated in his capture, overthrow, and eventual execution in 1649. Little over a decade later, on the far side of a tumultuous experiment with republican government and radical church reform along Puritan lines, the restored Charles II and his High Tory/High Anglican allies proceeded to erect a series of laws intended to drastically restrict the civil rights of England’s non-Anglican population. The Corporation Act (1661) essentially forbade anyone not a member of the Church of England from holding public office of any kind. The Act of Uniformity (1662) made the use of the Book of Common Prayer mandatory in all Anglican services. The Conventicle Act (1664) forbade unauthorized public religious assemblies of more than five people. And the Five Mile Act (1665) prohibited Non-Conformist ministers from coming within five miles or an incorporated town or of teaching in most schools. Of these so-called “Penal Laws,” only the Five Mile Act was no longer in force as of 1750.

While once again granting that Jonathan Mayhew was removed from the reigns of Charles I and Charles II by a wide expanse of time and tide, it might fairly be argued that he was not exempt from the effects thereof. Though he spend his life and career in Massachusetts – a community founded and governed by Puritans and their descendants – he could not but have been aware that the faith professed by himself, his family and his neighbors remained a persecuted one by the laws of the British state. Loyal or not, obedient or not, Mayhew would nevertheless have been forbidden from holding public office in Britain or even attending a religious service that was not authorized by the Crown. Combined with the knowledge of how badly his coreligionists had suffered under the reign of Archbishop Laud and the efforts made by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts – an Anglican missionary group founded in 1701 – to convert New England’s Non-Conformist population, he would indeed seem to have had little reason to view the Church of England in general, and its commemoration of January 30th in particular, as moral affronts to his personal understanding of salvation.  

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, Part VIII: Conclusions and Implications

At the same time that he was casting doubt upon the significance of the colonial charters, Otis was evidently also given to affirm that the status quo indicated by the passage of the Sugar Act represented a distribution of burdens somewhat at odds with the dictates of justice, equity, and common sense. A representation in Parliament from the several Colonies,” he thereby asserted,

Since they are become so large and numerous, as to be called on not to maintain provincial government, civil and military among themselves, for this they have chearfully done, but to contribute towards the support of a national standing army, by reason of the heavy national debt, when they themselves owe a large one, contracted in the common cause, can’t be tho’t an unreasonable thing, nor if asked, could it be called an immodest request.

As it then indeed stood, the colonies of British America were expected to welcome and assist whatever British forces were stationed in their midst and pay whatever taxes were laid upon them by Parliament while also funding their own local defenses and seeing to the debts they had themselves accrued during the recent war with France. This not only meant that Americans would be forced to pay for two military establishments and support two sets of financial obligations, but it placed them in the position of funding a garrison in America over whose actions they exercised no control whatsoever. The Latin phrase that Otis next cited – Qui sentis commodum sentire debet et onus, meaning, “he who enjoys the benefit must bear the burden” – served to embody his objection to this arrangement. Applied in the reverse – i.e. “he who bears a burden must receive some benefit” – he regarded it as a customary guarantee that political authority would never exact costs without providing something of value in return. “That a man should bear a burden for other people,” he thus explained, “as well as himself, without a return, never long found a place in any law-book or decrees, but those of the most despotic princes.” Lest the British sovereign become just that, it followed that his American subjects ought to have been permitted to take their place in the halls of Westminster.                      
            It perhaps bears repeating that this was not necessarily a practical demand. For all of the reasons cited previously, sending American MPs to sit in Parliament was an exceedingly inefficient proposition by which both the British legislative process and the interests of the Crown’s subjects in America would likely have suffered. Indeed, it was surely for this reason that contemporaries of Otis like John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson – in their Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-1768) and A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), respectively – restricted themselves to merely asserting the illegitimacy of Parliament’s claim to freely tax the people of America and calling for a repeal of the relevant legislation. What they shared with Otis, however – or indeed the manner in which they followed Otis – was in their common characterization of the issue at hand as being principally moral in nature. Dickinson and Jefferson alike were both firm and explicit in their conviction that Parliament’s claim to the right of taxation in America was fundamentally and inherently invalid. There were, of course, no laws on the books which clearly and unambiguously agreed with this conviction, nor much in the way of evidence to support any such restrictions upon the authority of Parliament. Nevertheless, they presented the issue as being a matter of right and wrong, natural and unnatural. The rights possessed by every subject of the British Crown, regardless of their place of birth or residence, demanded equal consideration under the British Constitution. No authority on earth could change that fact, and would deny it at their peril.

To be fair, Otis did endeavor to take things somewhat further, deploying in Asserted and Proved a host of legal citations and pragmatic assertions as to why it was improper, impolitic, and impractical for the present government in Britain to continue along the path that the Sugar Act portended. That being said, his core conviction – the thing that subsequent commentators most often echoed – was moral, spiritual, and essential. It wasn’t that Parliament couldn’t tax the colonies directly, for clearly they could. And it wasn’t that such taxation would drive the colonists to rebellion, though obviously that is what happened. Rather, it was the moral character of the British state that stood to suffer in the event that the Sugar Act was maintained. Speaking to this conviction, Otis declared in Asserted and Proved that,

When the parliament shall think fit to allow the colonists a representation in the house of commons, the equity of their taxing the colonies, will be as clear as their power is at present of doing it without, if they please.

While thus tacitly admitting that Parliament could, if its members were so inclined, tax whomever it wished in America to the extent it so desired, Otis simultaneously affirmed the primacy of a higher consideration. Certainly it was possible for Westminster to extract whatever wealth it set its sight upon from the American people. For that matter, it may even have been preferable to do so, though Otis ably claimed otherwise. But no matter how capable Parliament may have been of achieving this end, and no matter what benefits may have accrued in the meantime, nothing could have made it right.

            Asserted and Proved may thus be said to share the unwavering moral certitude of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in support of nearly the opposite central thesis. Paine wanted to save America from British rapacity by directing it down the path of independence. Otis almost certainly labored in hope of this same result, but seemed to believe that the best way to achieve it was to save the British Empire as a whole. Endeavoring to convince his audience that seating American MPs in Westminster was a sound proposal was thus far from na├»ve or delusional. Impractical or not, costly or not, inefficient or not, it was the only means he could conceive by which the British state might preserve its status as the steadfast guardian of the rights and liberties of its citizens. Granted, the people of British America stood to benefit measurably and directly from having permanent advocates stationed in the halls of Parliament. The presence of American MPs, for example, would surely have made legislation like the Sugar Act harder to pass, and likewise lessened the ability of British lawmakers to garrison soldiers among communities whose objections never reached their ears. But such advantages did not strike at the true purpose of such a reform. Again, the intention was fundamentally moral. Even if the elected representatives of the American people failed to stop their colleagues in Westminster from levying taxes upon the commerce of Boston or the agriculture of Virginia, or from stationing military personnel in every city and town across the breadth of the Thirteen Colonies, they, their constituents, and their fellow subjects in every corner of the Empire could at least take comfort in the knowledge that the proper forms had been observed, the ancient precedents followed, and the rights of the people respected and observed.

It is perhaps worth noting that in spite of the ardent loyalty to the British state espoused by James Otis Jr. in the text of Asserted and Proved, he ultimately sided with the Patriot cause upon the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and the Continental Congress. His earlier dealings with Massachusetts Governors Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson may well have contributed to this outcome, if not also his close personal and professional relationship with the incendiary Samuel Adams. In any case, he proved himself an impassioned critic of subsequent attempts by Parliament to bring British America to heel. He opposed the Stamp Act, for example, upon its passage in 1765 and penned a follow-up to Asserted and Proved entitled Considerations on Behalf of the Colonists. He was thereafter chosen to attend the resulting Stamp Act Congress, convened in New York City for the purpose of determining a collective response on the part of the participating American colonies. Though reportedly passed up as chairman of that body in consequence of his reputation as a firebrand, he was nonetheless described by colleague John Adams as having been the very soul of the gathering. As fate would have it, this may as well have been the man’s epitaph. Having suffered from intermittent bouts of mental illness since at least the 1740s, Otis became increasingly unstable and experienced shorter and shorter periods of lucidity as the 1760s progressed. His participation in the subsequent revolution – to whose language and logic he had so powerfully contributed – was thus severely limited. As if this were not tragic enough, he lived only until May of 1783, four months before the signing of the treaty that finally and firmly secured the independence of the United States of America. Struck by lightning, of all things, while standing in the doorway of a friend’s home, he was fifty-eight years old at the time of his death.  

Such a maudlin recounting of a subject’s last days admittedly represents a diversion from how these discussions usually come to a close. While the life of James Otis Jr. may fairly be considered too brilliant and too tragic to forego relating in full, the circumstances of his career and his contributions to the Patriot cause might also be said to weigh upon the significance of his work. He did not live very long and he was not very prolific. In consequence, Asserted and Proved may have been one of the most important things Otis ever did with his life. How intriguing it is, then, that it should also prove to be one of the most important documents in the history of the Revolution.

Or perhaps that’s going a bit too far. Otis was certainly a revered figure in his day, but his ultimate contribution to the cause of American liberty was – as noted above – necessarily limited. Just so, while it would not be hard at all to believe that Asserted and Proved exerted a significant influence upon the direction and tenor of the emerging Patriot dialogue surrounding the rights and liberties of Britain’s American subjects, it would be likewise difficult to say for certain how and when this might have been the case. Otis was undoubtedly among the first public commenters writing within the context of the late 18th century Anglo-American crisis to characterize the rights possessed by British Americans – and lately abrogated by Parliament – as being of a natural derivation. This was not an idea that he originated, to be sure – Hobbes and Locke had first discussed the notion up to a century prior – but it was one that had yet to be applied to the increasingly fraught relationship between Great Britain and its American dependencies. It is also worth noting that John and Samuel Adams both reported  being particularly stuck by the power of Otis’ intellect and the strength of his convictions when they heard him speak in the 1760s, and that the events of the Stamp Act Congress doubtless left many more statesmen from far outside the environs of colonial Massachusetts similarly affected. In consequence, while it may once again be overstating matters somewhat to declare that James Otis singlehandedly gave rise to the natural rights discussion within the context of the American Revolution, it nevertheless bears recognition that he was one of the first public voices to so articulate the mounting crisis of the 1760s and that he very often left a distinct and lasting impression of those who encountered his voice.

It may be said with far less ambiguity, however, that Asserted and Proved is one of the most important documents in the historiography of the Revolution. This is to say – for those mercifully unfamiliar with the conventions of 21st century academia – that while it might not have been the most demonstrably influential documents in its day, it says a great deal to those whose have since attempted to understand the nature of the Revolution about how and why that event came to pass.

Consider, for example, the context in which Asserted and Proved was written. Approved by Parliament in 1765, the Stamp Act is arguably the single piece of British legislation that was most responsible for catalyzing the nascent Patriot movement, inflaming the passions of statesmen from New Hampshire to South Carolina, and for the first time prompting independent, collective American political action. But Otis first wrote in response to the earlier Sugar Act. A comparative warning shot to the Crown’s subjects in America intended to alert them that change was afoot in the relationship between Parliament and the colonies, this claimed attempt at trade regulation angered principally those it affected and roused nothing like the degree of public discontent that 1765 would soon witness. That Otis nevertheless responded to the Sugar Act passionately and rigorously is thus a testament to the keenness of his intellect and the depth of his convictions, as well as a clear indication that discontent had been stirring in America for some time before taxes on newspapers, contracts, and playing cards brought vast swathes of the population to their feet. At a time when victory in war had lately served to bolster the affection these same people felt for the empire of which they were a part, this is no minor point of fact. Indeed, when one considers the nature of Otis’ claim in Asserted and Proved­ – that what mattered most under the British Constitution was not power but right – within the context of the high passion for British imperialism aroused by the successful conclusion of the Seven Years War, it certainly bears wondering whether Otis was the only person in American inclined to question the authority of Parliament or simply the only one to do so publically.    

More fascinating yet, given how influential many of the ideas he presented would eventually prove among his Patriot successors, is that Otis made his case against unlimited British authority in America in the context of loyalty to the institutions of the British state. Not only does this cast Asserted and Proved in a similar light to modern political journalism – i.e. criticism as a means of holding those in power to account – but it complicates popular narratives of the Revolution as being a wholesale rejection of all things British. As noted above, Otis seemed to believe that the best way to save the liberties of his fellow Americans and the integrity of their political institutions was to save Great Britain itself from becoming a state that tolerated the violation of the same. Far from washing his hands of Parliament and the British Constitution, he was thus intent on protecting these very institutions – which he unreservedly hallowed – from corruption, thoughtlessness, and the erosion of established political norms. Indeed, it would in some ways seem fairer to place Asserted and Proved next to something like Cato’s Letters than the aforementioned Common Sense. Like Trenchard and Gordon, Otis was prompted by recent events – the 1720 collapse of South Sea Company stock for the former, the 1764 passage of the Sugar Act for the latter – to diagnose the ills then plaguing the contemporary British state. That the authors of Cato’s Letters wrote from within the context of early Georgian Britain while the sole scribe of Asserted and Proved was a late 18th century Massachusetts lawyer affected only the circumstances of their work and not its purpose. Otis was united with his predecessors Trenchard and Gordon in seeking to expose the failings of a particular government as a means of preserving the soul of an empire. 

If nothing else, the ease with which this kind of similarity may be drawn should suggest – as many of the discussions undertaken in these pages have attempted – that the America Revolution was indeed a process rather than a moment. Contrary to the most popular narratives – which so often seem to begin with the Boston Tea Party and end with the Battle of Yorktown – the crisis that gave birth to the United States of America defies simple description. It was the child of many mothers – religious, political, philosophical, economic – began when it began – 1775? 1765? 1764? 1688? – ended when it ended – 1783? 1787? 1803? 1865? – and was at no point as cut and dried as two centuries of retellings would have it appear. Asserted and Proved is arguably symbolic of this definitional slipperiness because the image it conjures seems to be so plainly at odds with what the Revolution is best known for. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Paine’s Common Sense describe a people since exhausted by the strain of attempting to negotiate an acceptable solution to an ongoing political crisis. That was 1776. The critique rendered by James Otis of the recently-passed Sugar Act meanwhile evinces the loyalty and affection many Americans then sincerely felt for Great Britain and its institutions and the patience they were willing to exercise in seeing preserved the bond between that country and their own. That was 1764. The failure of one made the other possible. Such was the nature of the process. Such was the nature of the American Revolution.

Anyhow, that’ll do me. Take a look for yourself sometime