Monday, July 4, 2022

Revolutionary Republicanism: 1776

        In 1976, for the US Bicentennial Celebration at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio), I was asked to speak on … well something relevant. At the speech, I looked out at an audience far larger than I’d expected — at least one Speech teacher had required attendance — and started out with a thoroughly-rehearsed ad lib on how I was from Chicago and Chicagoans rejected the elitist concept that one had to be an expert to talk usefully on a subject, “OR, Chicagoans rarely let our ignorance get in the way of shooting off our mouths. And tonight I’m going to shoot my mouth off on the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary document, far more revolutionary than most of us recognize.”

        And I proceeded to talk about something I did know about: from around Shakespeare’s time the Homily — a canned sermon — on Obedience to Authority and “An Exhortation concerning good Order, and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates.” 
        On the basis of Holy Scripture and Natural Law, the writers of the Homilies were convinced that

Almighty God has created and appointed all things in heaven and on earth and all about, in a most excellent and perfect order. In heaven, he has appointed distinct and several orders and states of Archangels and Angels. In earth he has assigned and appointed Kings, Princes, with other governors under them, in all good and necessary order. […]  The sun, moon, stars, rainbow, thunder, lightning, clouds, and all the birds of the air, keep their order. The earth, trees, seeds, plants, herbs, corn, grass, and all manner of beasts keep themselves in order […].

Human beings also have all parts both within and without, like soul, heart, mind, memory, understanding, reason, speech, with all and singular corporal members of our body in a profitable, necessary, and pleasant order: every degree of people in their vocation, calling and office, is appointed to them their duty and order: some are in high degree, some in low, some Kings and Princes, some inferiors and subjects, priests, and layfolk, masters and servants, fathers, and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, and everyone needs the other, so that in all things God, in good order, is lauded and praised, without which no house, city or commonwealth can continue, endure or last. For where there is no right order, there reigns abuse, carnal liberty, enormity, sin and Babylonian confusion.

Take away Kings Princes, Rulers, Magistrates, Judges, and such estates of God's good order, and no one shall ride or go by the highway un-robbed, no one shall sleep in their own house or bed un-killed, no one shall keep their spouse, children, and possession in quietness, all things shall be in-common, and there must needs follow all kinds of mischief, and utter destruction of souls, bodies, goods and social well-being. But blessed be God, that we in this realm of England, feel not the horrible calamities, miseries, and wretchedness, which all they undoubtedly feel and suffer, who lack this godly order: and praised be God, that we know the great excellent benefit of God shown towards us in this behalf, God has sent us his high gift, our most dear Sovereign Lord the King, with a godly, wise and honourable counsel, with other superiors and inferiors, in a beautiful and godly order.

        I have no doubt that somewhere in the back of a church or two, some rebellious soul was mouthing silently the subversive old rime, from John Ball, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, “When Adam delved and Eva span, / Who was then the gentleman?” I.e., when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden to earn their livings by toil like digging and spinning — “From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude,” serfdom and exploitation, “came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men” (“naughty” was a much more powerful word back then). Still, the orthodox, non-heretical, traditional, obvious view was that the universe was a Great Chain of Being, running from the hand or footstool of God down through the orders of the angels to the stars and planets, and then humans in our order, and down through plants and animals to the minerals and down to your basic rock. Everything in its order, held together by the love of God for all and the love of each conscious creature for those above and below, and by our sense of different obligations to those above and below.
        This “most excellent and perfect order” had been obvious among the educated (and otherwise privileged) since the time of Aristotle.
        Human hierarchy was part of this “godly order”; human love and obligation was natural.
        It’s a beautiful and useful view, especially from the top. From the bottom … well looking up, the human part might look more like a multistory outhouse, if one were so privileged as to own an outhouse. And if you lost faith in that “godly order,” well you were “an heretic,” and if you acted or even spoke aloud that loss of faith, you were open to a charge of treason and finding yourself, if male, hanged, drawn, and quartered, or, if female, burned alive. So if there were any doubts, most people probably kept them quiet, and they were lost to history; and this orthodox view of hierarchical society came down to the time of the American Revolution, and parts last to this day.
        If you play Twenty Questions, you begin with “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?,” and in that order because, ultimately, that is the order in the Great Chain of Being. If you talk of “higher” and “lower” animals, higher and lower in terms of what? Possibly in terms of a simplistic idea of evolution, more likely in terms of the Great Chain of Being and the possibility of drawing a firm line and making radical distinction between humans as “the paragon of animals” and “a little lower than the angels” — and the rest, many of whom you probably want someone to kill and skin and cook or pluck and cook and feed you, without your feeling guilt. (Well, unless you prefer cooking, or killing them, yourself.)
        Against such well-established doctrine, it’s difficult to argue, and Thomas Jefferson and the guys didn’t bother. Instead, in the subversive tradition of John Ball, they offer a competing creation myth, if not for the universe, then for human society — and like John Ball find justification for rebellion against “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

So now, please read again:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.