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    Book Club: The Roots of American OrderChapter 11

    May 18, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    I was hoping to finish up the book this week, but as you can see I still have one chapter left. Life, you know? It just keeps happening around here lately. I tried to stop it, but instead I have embodied Murphy’s Law more than anything else.

    I’m just saying.

    The Roots of 
    American Order
    by Russell Kirk

    So: Chapter 11. There were entire portions of this chapter {the discussion of the First Amendment and freedom of religion} that I was already pretty clear on, so I count this as the least remarkable chapter in the book. Of course, if you aren’t familiar with the facts and ideas surrounding the First Amendment, you’d likely find it all very interesting.

    I only have a few things to pull out and mention this time around: the details of the Tea Act, the relationship of the idea that “the King can do no wrong” to our society, and the difference between “government” and “state” in the minds of the Framers.

    The Tea Act: Lowering the Price of Tea

    Kirk tells us that there were two groups that were enraged by the Tea Act: those who loved their liberty…and tea smugglers.

    Let me explain.

    According to Kirk, the Tea Act actually lowered the price of tea. Even though it did impose a three cent tax on tea exported into America from Britain, it eliminated a previous twelve cent tax on tea imported into Britain. For the Americans, this was a nine cent per pound decrease in cost. Kirk points out:

    The British government’s only purpose in demanding a threepenny tax at American ports was to assert the right of the King in Parliament to levy such duties if he so chose.

    So, as you see, the issue at hand really was about the King’s authority to tax, rather than the colonists’ miserly grip on their three cents.

    The tea smugglers? Well, a nine cent per pound drop in tea prices threatened the profitability of smuggling, so they were definitely on board for the Boston Tea Party.

    Francis Schaeffer used to call this being “co-belligerents,” which is to say that two groups can work together to achieve the same ends…but for very different reasons.

    What if the King Breaks the Law?

    Kirk reminds us that there was a saying, “The king can do no wrong.” Kirk’s entire discussion reminded me of why Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, “for the healing of the nation.”

    “The king can do no wrong” is an English legal aphorism of long standing, reaffirmed by Blackstone. It does not mean that the occupant of the throne is incapable of sinning: rather, it signifies that because the king is the indispensable axis upon which the whole realm revolves, he cannot be punished for the acts of his government0–not if the bed of justice and the defense of the realm are to be maintained. It is the king’s ministers who will be punished for encroachments upon liberty–if necessary, by impeachment and even execution; they can do wrong. So “the king can do no wrong” is a useful fiction–which does not mean that it is false…The attempt to hold King Charles I personally responsible for the acts of his government, ending in his execution, had been disastrous for the English nation.

    Obviously, we do not go so far as this, for we have impeached a president more than once, and I’m sure we’ve attempted to impeach presidents even more than that. But I think that Ford’s pardoning of Nixon was in line with the above thinking, and I also think that he was right, that a public trial of a president would have been very difficult for the nation. In other words, Ford was doing what was best for the country rather than what was best for Nixon.

    “Government” ≠ “State”

    If you aren’t reading along, you need to know that one of the main discussions in this chapter is whether or not the American Revolution {ahem the War for Independence} had much in common with the French Revolution that took place only a few years later. Kirk answers this in the negative, and I think he builds a good case. Of course, I’m sure I’m biased because this is the conclusion I’d already come to based upon my own study.

    With that said, when the Declaration asserts the right of the citizens to “alter or abolish” their government, and institute a new one, this sounds like a standing invitation to revolution to our modern ears. Kirk takes some pains to correct this impression:

    One needs to note, moreover, that the Declaration’s word is “government”–not “state.” Eighteenth-century writers made a clear distinction between the two. “Government” implied the temporary possessors of power and their current political policies: whenever the king dismissed his ministers and chose new ones, a new “government” was formed. “State,” on the other hand, meant what today we tend to call “society”–the established civil social order, permanent in character, with some sort of enduring constitution. The Declaration spoke of instituting “new Government,” not of overthrowing the state itself, or the social order. That is another aspect of the moderation of the America “revolutionaries” they argued that governments might be altered or abolished, but contemplated no pulling down of fundamental institutions and ways of life.

    Kirk states in other places that when the King imposed the Tea Act, he was actually changing his relationship with the colonies. It was the King, then, who was the revolutionary, in the sense that he was attempting to establish a different social order than had existed in the colonies since their advent. The Americans, in wanting to keep the established social order, when they ran out of other options, needed to change their government in order to do this.

    We can easily contrast this with the French, who wanted to completely abolish their social order and create another one {about which, I might add, there was much debate–they destroyed first, and argued about a vision for rebuilding later–a big mistake}. The French were rebelling not just against the King, but also the “second sword” which governed them: the Church.

    I’ve heard and read both conservatives and liberals assert that the Declaration encourages them to alter or abolish as they see fit, with no regard to history or precedent. Kirk explains that this is a complete misunderstanding of what the Framers meant when they used this language.

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    More book club posts linked at Cindy’s blog

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