Pauline Maier on colonial radicalism

With Independence Day upon us, my bedtime reading for the past couple of weeks has become timely. Pauline Maier, the MIT historian who unfortunately passed away last year, published From Resistance to Revolution in 1972. It’s a carefully researched and well-written account, weaving together reports from contemporaneous sources, of the increasing radicalization of American colonists from 1765 to 1776. How did the beliefs of so many colonists evolve from being loyal British subjects to supporting revolution and independence from Britain — why this radicalization?

Maier’s ultimate conclusion is overreaching and misinterpretations on the part of the British government, which is consistent with the “generally received” historical narrative. But what I have found most interesting and novel from her argument is Chapter 2: An Ideology of Resistance and Restraint. Maier grounds the intellectual origins of revolution in the 17th-18th-century English revolutionary writers — John Locke is best known among Americans, but also John Milton and Algernon Sidney (see here my summary of Sidney on illegitimate political power) and Frances Hutcheson. She describes a category of political belief called “Real Whigs”, and argued that the Real Whig beliefs in both the people as the ultimate source of legitimate political power and the value of social order meant that the colonists were inclined to resist the illegitimate exercise of authority, but not to jump quickly to a radical revolutionary position. For example:

Spokesmen for this English revolutionary tradition were distinguished in the eighteenth century above all by their outspoken defense of the people’s right to rise up against their rulers, which they supported in traditional contractural [sic] terms. Government was created by the people to promote the public welfare. If magistrates failed to honor that trust, they automatically forfeited their powers back to the people, who were free and even obliged [as per Sidney’s argument — ed.] to reclaim political authority. The people could do so, moreoever, in acts of limited resistance, intended to nullify only isolated wrongful acts of the magistrates, or ultimately in revolution, which denied the continued legitimacy of the established government as a whole. …

The fundamental values of the Radical Whigs were realized most fully in a well-ordered free society, such that obedience to the law was stressed as much or more than occasional resistance to it. (pp. 27-28)

This chapter really resonated with me as a clear explanation of the primacy of individual liberty combined with a society ordered using universally-applied general legal principles (otherwise known as the “rule of law”). This combination of resistance and restraint is the key to understanding the political philosophy underlying the American republic, and Maier’s chapter is the best articulation of it that I’ve read.

Given the fractious and polarized political climate we inhabit today, I think a refresher on these ideas and their foundations is a good idea. We should be having a larger conversation about what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate political authority, particularly in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, the expansion of federal executive branch assertion of authority over the past 14 years, the expansion of administrative regulation (which is a sub-category of executive assertion), and the ability of business interests with political power to influence that regulation’s form and scope. There are a lot of arguments from all parts of the political spectrum that mischaracterize or misunderstand the ideas that Maier lays out here so clearly. We’d still be likely to have a fractious and polarized political climate, but we’d have better-informed public debate.