The idea that religious liberty is the generating principle of civil, and that civil liberty is the necessary condition of religious, was a discovery reserved for the seventeenth century. Many years before the names of Milton and Taylor, of Baxter and Locke were made illustrious by their partial condemnation of intolerance, there were men among the Independent congregations who grasped with vigor and sincerity the principle that it is only by abridging the authority of states that the liberty of churches can be assured. That great political idea, sanctifying freedom and consecrating it to God, teaching men to treasure the liberties of others as their own, and to defend them for the love of justice and charity, more than as a claim of right, has been the soul of what is great and good in the progress of the last three hundred years. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 fulfilled this vision for awhile, resulting in Protestant William III, Prince of Orange and his wife Mary II ruling England jointly for six years. The greatest writers of the English Whig party, Burke and Macaulay, represent the statesmen from this Revolution as the intellectual forebears of modern liberty, as it developed and was ultimately established in America during the 1770s.
It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their own business, and that the nation is responsible to heaven for the acts of the state, burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform, under the title of the Rights of Man. Whether the British legislature had a constitutional right to tax a subject colony was hard to say, by the letter of the law. The general presumption was immense on the side of authority; and the world believed that the will of the constituted ruler ought to be supreme, and not the will of the subject people. Very few bold writers went as far as to say that lawful power may be resisted in cases of extreme necessity. But the colonizers of America, who had gone forth not in search of gain, but to escape from laws under which other Englishmen were content to live, were sensitive to appearances; and they reckoned the reasons why Edward I and his Council were not allowed to tax England were the reasons George III and his Parliament could not tax America. The dispute involved a principle enshrined as far back as Magna Carta (1215), namely, the right of controlling government. Furthermore, it involved the conclusion that the parliament brought together by a derisive election, had no just right over the unrepresented nation; and it called on the people of England to take back its power. Our best statesmen saw that, whatever might be the law, the rights of the nation were at stake. The first Earl of Chatham, William Pitt in speeches better remembered than any in parliament, exhorted America to be firm. Lord Camden, the late Chancellor, said: “Taxation and representation are inseparably united. God hath joined them. No British parliament can separate them.”
From the elements of that crisis Burke built up the noblest political philosophy in the world, from which he could also distinguish the righteousness of the American Cause from the errors inherent in the French Revolution. “I do not know the method,” said he, “of drawing up an indictment against a whole people. —The natural rights of mankind are indeed sacred things, and if any public measure is proved mischievously to affect them, the objection ought to be fatal to that measure, even if no charter at all could be set up against it. —Only a sovereign reason, paramount to all forms of legislation and administration, should dictate.” In this way, 230 years ago, the principle gained ground, that a nation can never abandon its fate to an authority it cannot control. The Americans placed it at the foundation of their new government. They did more: for having subjected all civil authorities to the popular will, they surrounded the popular will with restrictions that the British legislature would not endure. By the time of President Monroe and the Era of Good Feelings, it might be said no other age or country had solved so successfully the problems that attend the growth of free societies. The causes of old world trouble, popular ignorance, pauperism, the glaring contrast between rich and poor, religious strife, public debts, standing armies and war, were almost unknown in America. I do not like to conclude without inviting attention to the impressive fact that so much of the hard fighting, hard thinking, and the enduring that has contributed to the deliverance of man from the power of man, has been the work of the British and of their descendants in other lands. Perhaps more accurately, it has been the result and is indeed the legacy, of our most important and enduring Anglo and Anglo-American institutions, such as the university, stable currency, an independent judiciary, local self-government and most of all, the rule of law.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. This piece largely abridged and condensed from an address by Lord Acton to the Bridgnorth Institute in England on 28 May 1877. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.