Last August, President Obama declared: “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.” But is it so?
In the storybook version most of us learned in school, the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in 1620. The Puritans soon followed, for the same reason. Ever since these religious dissidents arrived at their shining “city upon a hill,” as their governor John Winthrop called it, millions from around the world have done the same, coming to an America where they found a welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith.
The problem is that this tidy narrative is an American myth. The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over or shunt to the side. And much of the recent conversation about America’s ideal of religious freedom has paid lip service to this comforting tableau….
In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.
(James) Madison also made a point that any believer of any religion should understand: that the government sanction of a religion was, in essence, a threat to religion. “Who does not see,” he wrote, “that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”
Commentators on the present financial crisis have noted some interesting parallels to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even if we survive Washington’s spending spree, Congress and the Obama administration could still tip us into catastrophe if they sharply raise taxes or tariffs as Congress did in 1930 and ’32. But more ominous parallels to an earlier age should not escape our notice.
Monumental sums for bailouts. Staggering increases in public debt. Concentration of power in the central government. A mad scramble by interest groups with endless claims on the treasury. Demagogic class warfare appeals. These things ring familiar in the ninth year of 21st century America just as surely as they dominated the ill-fated Roman welfare state of two millennia ago.
In the waning years of the Roman republic, a rogue named Clodius ran for the office of tribune. He bribed the electorate with promises of free grain at taxpayer expense and won. Thereafter, Romans in growing numbers embraced the notion that voting for a living could be more lucrative than working for one. This set into motion Kershner’s First Law, named for the late economist Howard E. Kershner: “When a self-governing people confer upon their government the power to take from some and give to others, the process will not stop until the last bone of the last taxpayer is picked bare.”
Candidates for Roman office spent huge sums to win public favor, then plundered the population afterwards to make good on their promises to the rent-seekers that elected them. As the republic gave way to dictatorship, a succession of emperors built their power on the huge handouts they controlled. Nearly a third of the city of Rome itself received public relief payments by the time of the birth of Christ.
In response to a severe money and credit crisis in 33 A.D., the central government extended credit at zero interest on a massive scale. Government spending in the wake of the crisis soared.
In 91 A.D., the government became deeply involved in agriculture. Emperor Domitian, to reduce the production and raise the price of wine, ordered the destruction of half the provincial vineyards.
Following the lead of Rome, many cities within the empire spent themselves deeply into debt. Beginning with Emperor Hadrian early in the Second Century, municipalities in financial difficulty received aid from Rome and lost a substantial measure of their political independence in the bargain.
The central government also assumed the responsibility of providing the people with entertainment. Elaborate circuses and gladiator duels were staged to keep the people happy. The equivalent of a hundred million dollars per year in the city of Rome alone is one modern historian’s estimate of what was poured out on the games.
Under Emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled from 138 to 161 A.D., the Roman bureaucracy reached mammoth proportions. Eventually, according to the historian Albert Trever, “the relentless system of taxation, requisition, and compulsory labor was administered by an army of military bureaucrats. . . .Everywhere were the ubiquitous personal agents of the emperors” employed to crush tax evaders.
There were plenty of taxes to evade. Emperor Nero is said by Roman historian Gaius Suetonius in De Vitae Caesarum to have once rubbed his hands together and declared, “Let us tax and tax again! Let us see to it that no one owns anything!” Taxation ultimately destroyed the wealthy first, followed by the middle and lower classes. “What the soldiers or the barbarians spared, the emperors took in taxes,” according to historian W. G. Hardy.
Late in the Third Century, Emperor Aurelian declared government relief payments to be a hereditary right. He provided recipients government-baked bread (instead of the old practice of giving them wheat and letting them bake their own bread) and added free salt, pork, and olive oil.
Rome suffered from the bane of all welfare states, inflation. The massive demands on the government to spend and subsidize created pressures for the multiplication of money. Roman coinage was debased by one emperor after another to pay for expensive programs. Once almost pure silver, the denarius by the year 300 was little more than a piece of junk containing less than five percent silver.
Prices skyrocketed and savings vanished. Businessmen were vilified even as government continued its spendthrift ways. Price controls further ravaged a battered and shrinking private economy. By 476 A.D. when barbarians wiped the empire from the map, Rome had committed moral and economic suicide.
Another Great Depression should indeed concern us. The one that followed the Roman welfare state is known as the Dark Ages and it lasted for several hundred years.
Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.
July 5, 2014
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
–Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Nov 13, 1787
Thomas Jefferson, the author of America’s July 4, 1776 Declaration of Secession from the British empire, was a lifelong advocate of both the voluntary union of the free, independent, and sovereign states, and of the right of secession. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form,” he said in his first inaugural address in 1801, “let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it.”
In a January 29, 1804 letter to Dr. Joseph priestly, who had ask Jefferson his opinion of the New England secession movement that was gaining momentum, he wrote: “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children & descendants as those of the eastern . . . and did I now foresee a separation at some future day,, yet should feel the duty & the desire to promote the western interests as zealously as the eastern, doing all the good for both portions of our future family . . .” Jefferson offered the same opinion to John C. Breckenridge on August 12 1803 when New Englanders were threatening secession after the Louisiana purchase. If there were a “separation,” he wrote, “God bless them both & keep them in the union if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.”
Everyone understood that the union of the states was voluntary and that, as Virginia, Rhode Island, and New York stated in their constitutional ratification documents, each state had a right to withdraw from the union at some future date if that union became harmful to its interests. So when New Englanders began plotting secession barely twenty years after the end of the American Revolution, their leader, Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering (who was also George Washington’s secretary of war and secretary of state) stated that “the principles of our Revolution point to the remedy – a separation. That this can be accomplished without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt” (In Henry Adams, editor, Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1800-1815, p. 338). The New England plot to secede from the union culminated in the Hartford Secession Convention of 1814, where they ultimately decided to remain in the union and to try to dominate it politically instead. (They of course succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, beginning in April of 1865 up to the present day).
John Quincy Adams, the quintessential New England Yankee, echoed these Jeffersonian sentiments in an 1839 speech in which he said that if different states or groups of states came into irrepressible conflict, then that “will be the time for reverting to the precedents which occurred at the formation and adoption of the Constitution, to form again a more perfect union by dissolving that which could no longer bind, and to leave the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation . . .” (John Quincy Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution, 1939, pp. 66-69).
There is a long history of American newspapers endorsing the Jeffersonian secessionist tradition. The following are just a few examples.
The Bangor, Maine Daily Union once editorialized that the union of Maine with the other states “rests and depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each. When that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone, and no power exterior to the withdrawing [state] can ever restore it.” Moreover, a state can never be a true equal member of the American union if forced into it by military aggression, the Maine editorialists wrote.
“A war . . . is a thousand times worse evil than the loss of a State, or a dozen States” the Indianapolis Daily Journal once wrote. “The very freedom claimed by every individual citizen, precludes the idea of compulsory association, as individuals, as communities, or as States,” wrote the Kenosha, Wisconsin Democrat. “The very germ of liberty is the right of forming our own governments, enacting our own laws, and choosing or own political associates . . . . The right of secession inheres to the people of every sovereign state.”
Using violence to force any state to remain in the union, once said the New York Journal of Commerce, would “change our government from a voluntary one, in which the people are sovereigns, to a despotism” where one part of the people are “slaves.” The Washington (D.C.) Constitution concurred, calling a coerced union held together at gunpoint (like the Soviet Union, for instance) “the extreme of wickedness and the acme of folly.”
“The great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of American Independence, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” the New York Daily Tribune once wrote, “is sound and just,” so that if any state wanted to secede peacefully from the union, it has “a clear moral right to do so.”
A union maintained by military force, Soviet style, would be “mad and Quixotic” as well as “tyrannical and unjust” and “worse than a mockery,” editorialized the Trenton (N.J.) True American. Echoing Jefferson’s letter to John C. Breckenridge, the Cincinnati Daily Commercial once editorialized that “there is room for several flourishing nations on this continent; and the sun will shine brightly and the rivers run as clear” if one or more states were to peacefully secede.
All of these Northern state editorials were published in the first three months of 1861 and are published in Howard Cecil Perkins, editor, Northern Editorials on Secession (Gloucester, Mass.: 1964). They illustrate how the truths penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence – that the states were considered to be free, independent, and sovereign in the same sense that England and France were; that the union was voluntary; that using invasion, bloodshed, and mass murder to force a state into the union would be an abomination and a universal moral outrage; and that a free society is required to revere freedom of association – were still alive and well until April of 1865 when the Lincoln regime invented and adopted the novel new theory that: 1) the states were never sovereign; 2) the union was not voluntary; and 3) the federal government had the “right” to prove that propositions 1 and 2 are right by means murdering hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens by waging total war on the entire civilian population of the Southern states, bombing and burning its cities and towns into a smoldering ruin, and calling it all “the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Happy Fourth of July!
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; ;Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe, How Capitalism Saved America, Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution – And What It Means for America Today. His latest book is Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government.
At about 5 a.m., 700 British troops, on a mission to capture Patriot leaders and seize a Patriot arsenal, march into Lexington to find 77 armed minutemen under Captain John Parker waiting for them on the town’s common green. British Major John Pitcairn ordered the outnumbered Patriots to disperse, and after a moment’s hesitation the Americans began to drift off the green. Suddenly, the “shot heard around the world” was fired from an undetermined gun, and a cloud of musket smoke soon covered the green. When the brief Battle of Lexington ended, eight Americans lay dead or dying and 10 others were wounded. Only one British soldier was injured, but the American Revolution had begun.