The late Jean-François Revel wrote a once-famous book with the title Comment les démocraties finissent.  Revel was not a stupid man, and I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon “we tired the sun with talking,” but as a political philosopher, he was a prisoner of the leftist ideology that treats terms like equality and democracy as substantial realities.  He had moved just far enough away from Marx to enter the orbit of Voltaire and Robespierre, whose thoughts are utterly useless as weapons against the insanities of postmodern and post-Christian life.

I do not know what Revel thought democracy is or was, but anyone who has studied history knows full well how democracies always end up, and that is in tyranny.  The 60’s slogan “Power to the People,” a neat encapsulation of democratic theory, was then and is now used as a weapon to destroy all the customs, institutions, and laws that protect ordinary men and women from the power-seeking predators who rise to the top in every known political structure, whether monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic.

Politics, since even before Machiavelli, is a technique of gaining and holding power, and if the rhetoric of democracy serves the interest of a political class, then we all have to be democrats, just as we all had to be socialists and all will soon have to be transsexualists.  This much, at least, was understood by Abraham Lincoln, whose own rhetoric of democracy—“government of the people, by the people, for the people”—was a mystic formula whose meaning no one has ever convincingly deciphered.

Lincoln did not initiate the political revolution that destroyed the American republic: The bandwagon was hurtling along in its course long before he leaped aboard and seized the reins.  The effect of his presidency and of the war he either brought on deliberately or blundered into was to annul the American Revolution, which might be more accurately described as a counterrevolution.  But if we are going to stick to conventional language, we can say that Mr. Lincoln’s project in national democracy served as the counterrevolution to the revolution of 1776.

To understand why some Americans—and not just in the South—opposed the Lincolnian counterrevolution, we first have to understand why so many Americans had been willing to go to war in the 1770’s.  In Massachusetts, of course, one can find sound economic reasons.  The British government was eager to find ways to make the colonies pay for the wars that had been undertaken on their behalf, and taxation and regulation of industry and commerce seemed to be—and indeed was—a solution that was both reasonable and just.  New Englanders, feeling the pinch of mercantilist policies, were understandably annoyed, and when the insult of constitutional innovation (the suspension of charters and the so-called Intolerable Acts) was added to the injury inflicted on their economic life, they were ripe for revolution.

The planters and merchants of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry, by contrast, were making out rather well within the empire.  In the 1770’s, Charleston was one of the wealthiest and by far the most civilized city in North America.  By the outbreak of the Revolution, Charleston merchants and Lowcountry planters formed an American aristocracy.  They had had their little quarrels with the imperial administration of Great Britain, but nothing so serious as to occlude the obvious fact that their present and future advantage lay in maintaining their close ties with the British Empire.  With only one major exception (Christopher Gadsden), Charleston’s future leaders of the revolutionary movement were conservatives who, even though they were critical of British imperial policy, rejected any notion of secession.  Why, then, did Henry Laurens, John Rutledge, Rawlins Lowndes, and the Pinckney brothers not only join and lead the Revolution in the South but risk everything they had?

Many Charleston merchants and “mechanics” were incensed over the Stamp Act, and they rabbled tax collectors and even invaded the home of Henry Laurens, whom they mistakenly assumed supported this invasion of property rights.  However, the Stamp Act was only one in a series of attempts made by the British to make the empire pay for itself.  The regulations imposed by Britain’s various Navigation Acts not only levied tariffs but excluded foreign shipping from American waters.  These protectionist measures, when taken together, were widely resented in New England, whose economy was already based on trade and manufacturing.  However, the Navigation Acts hardly touched Carolina interests.  New England might not be able to sell fur hats even to other colonies, but Carolina rice and indigo went around the world.  As Edward McCrady writes, “There were twenty-nine laws which restricted and bound down colonial industry; but none of these touched in the least an abstraction, and hardly one of them, until the passage of the Stamp act, imposed a direct tax.”  McCrady was a prominent Charleston attorney, Confederate officer, and the author of magisterial works on the early history of his state.

It is more than a little ironic that British mercantilism was the primary economic motive for New England’s revolt.  McCrady, writing some 25 years after the end of the War Between the States, points out that the Navigation Acts are hardly different from the measures imposed by the American government before, and more particularly after, the War.  “The principle of protection of certain classes and industries, which must necessarily inure to the detriment of all others, has been practised in their enactments and revenue measures from the establishment of the Union to the present day.”

This is not to say that there were not many frictions between the Carolinians and the governors sent out from England.  Many of the conflicts involved the Carolinians’ growing sense of their own provincial identity and their resentment at the promotion of English-born officials over the heads of wealthier and more competent Carolinians.  Josiah Quincy, visiting the city in 1773, reports that several prominent Charlestonians complained, “We none of us, when we grow old, can expect the top honours of the state.  They are all given away to worthless sycophants.”  In addition to these political embarrassments, Carolinians were made to feel their inferiority as provincials, especially when they went, as most sons of the elite did, to study in England.  McCrady quite rightly saw home rule as a major issue: “There was no home rule.  No measure, however pressing, could be passed into law until it had received the sanction of a Board sitting three thousand miles away, with out the slightest interest in the welfare of the colony.”

In South Carolina, at least, states’ rights was a founding principle of the Revolution, a principle that preceded independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.

While most historians and political ideologues have claimed, over and over, that the American rebels were devotees of John Locke’s theory of natural rights and the social contract, there is very little evidence of this.  In recent years, historian John Philip Reid has gone over a huge mass of petitions and proclamations from the colonies, and there is little or nothing in them about the state of nature or the social contract.  Every important statement and virtually all the little manifestos of church parishes and small townships stake their claim on the Common Law rights of Englishmen.

A key word was equality, not of all human beings, but the equality of Americans in possessing the rights of the English.  Patrick Henry put it succinctly: The colonists are entitled “to all the liberties, privileges, franchises that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.”  Provincials resented the fact that Parliament denied them the benefits of several significant statutes, such as the Habeas Corpus Act, the Act of Settlement, and the Bill of Rights.

For the Americans, the main political question at issue was how to maintain the security of property.  If the British government could tax them without the consent of their legislatures and invade their warehouses and homes in search of contraband or unstamped goods, they were mere slaves of Parliament.  The Stamp Act, according to several leading British politicians and jurists, was a violation of Common Law restrictions on the power of the king’s agents to enter a man’s property without the owner’s permission.

But Merry Old England, in the 18th century, was evolving from a constitutional monarchy required to govern according to law and precedent into a regime based on parliamentary supremacy.  Much like today, when not only our constitutional law but the basic facts of human life can be declared invalid by courts, so Parliament, representing the will of the nation, could make any law that it liked, overturning customs, abrogating charters, and superseding all lesser jurisdictions.  So, properly speaking, this was the revolution against which our ancestors revolted.

To avoid serious misunderstanding of both the American Revolution and the traditions of the American republic, we must be very clear about what was at stake: England was rapidly evolving from a complex medieval society with a rich array of overlapping and conflicting rights and privileges, jurisdictions, and traditions into a modern state based on unitary and undivided sovereignty.  American provincials, like provincials everywhere, were conservatives, and they were rather late in understanding the revolution that was taking place.  It was this parliamentary theory of unitary sovereignty—later to be recast in America as democratic majority rule—that Carolinians and other Americans were determined to resist.

Despite the provocations, Charleston’s political leaders were reluctant rebels.  John Rutledge, the heart and soul of independent South Carolina, still wanted to do nothing that would prevent reunification with the empire, and Henry Laurens, writing to a friend from the Tower of London, recalled his own reaction to the Declaration of Independence:

I happened to be in mourning, and in that garb I attended the solemn and, as I felt it, awful renunciation of an union which I, at the hazard of my life and reputation, most earnestly strove to conserve and support.  In truth, I wept that day, as I had done for the melancholy catastrophe which caused me to put on black clothes—the death of a son—and felt much more pain.

The revolutionary leaders of South Carolina were all property owners who fully embraced the notion that human happiness is dependent on the security of property within a constitutional tradition that neither the whim of a king, nor the sovereignty of Parliament, nor the will of the people can be allowed to transgress.  This was the bedrock of American republicanism, not only for the Carolinians, but for Jefferson in Virginia and the Adamses in Massachusetts.  They all feared democracy, which, as they knew from history, led first to anarchy and ultimately to tyranny.  When Southerners heard democracy being invoked to justify the abrogation of constitutional principles, it was not only the loss to their pocketbooks they feared but the destruction of republican liberty.

The theory of democracy, which is in principle the right of a majority to strip a minority of its rights, was used to destroy the republic 150 years ago, and it is in the name of democratic equality that all the fundamental institutions of human life are now under attack.  Once this principle is invoked, there are no barriers to the growth of government and its invasion of private life.  We once had a constitution to defend us from the tyranny of the majority, but the Constitution of the United States, while it can still provide excellent talking points for conservatives, has been nullified by the Supreme Court.  We once had states, whose power to resist the national government was guaranteed by the Tenth Amendment, but Appomattox put an end to states’ rights, along with every other right protected by the Constitution.

The only question on the table these days is the Machiavellian question of power.  Edward McCrady understood this well.  In 1899, when his niece asked him how she should go about studying the Constitution, the great conservative historian responded, “If you want to know the Constitution, at present, you need not hear lectures.  It can be written in one word: ‘force.’”  His insight only gained strength in the course of the 20th century.

In the political contests of the 21st century, Americans are asked to choose between the party of treason and self-hatred and the party that spouts the slogans of national greatness that have deprived the American people of their liberties.  The appeal to patriotic unity has been nearly irresistible to decent Americans, even before the Revolution, when British Americans began to feel that they had more in common with one another than they had with people back in the Old Country.  New Englanders manipulated this sentiment skillfully.  During his visit to Charleston in 1793, Josiah Quincy must have been playing this tune at an evening party, when a “hot Tory” informed the Charlestonians that “Massachusetts was aiming at sovereignty over the other provinces”:

You may depend upon it, if Great Britain should renounce sovereignty of this continent, or if the colonies shake themselves clear of her authority, that you all [the Carolinas and the other provinces] will have governors sent you from Boston.  Boston aims at nothing less than the sovereignty of this whole continent.

The actual conclusion was worse than the English Tory could have anticipated.  While John Quincy Adams—connected with Josiah Quincy through his mother, Abigail—dreamed of breaking up the Union and turning it into an empire ruled by New England, the revolution of the 1860’s ended up devastating New England almost as much as it did the South.  What emerged in the late 19th century, as John Quincy’s grandson Henry described it, was a country ruled by speculators, stockjobbers, and imperialists.  Boston rule would have been infinitely preferable to rule by the set of gangsters who engineered the election of Grant, Arthur, McKinley, and Harding and their moral and spiritual descendants who control both political parties today.