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The birth of the United States of America

When the American Founding Fathers set about designing their constitutional model, they did not come to their task in a vacuum. They were after all the thirteen freest countries the world had ever known. They were and saw themselves as heirs to Blackstone’s Fundamental Laws of England, and beneficiaries too of the Glorious Revolution.

And James II had tried to remove their representative government[ii]. William and Mary restored it. It was the belief of the Americans that a subsequent English government was denying them their rights. It was not so much the Great Proclamation [iii]  which prevented the colonists taking more Indian land. Nor was it the decision in Somerset’s Case concerning a runaway American slave. There Lord Mansfield had found, probably apocryphally, that “the air of England was too pure for a slave to breathe. Let the black go free.” [iv]

American slave owners knew that this common law ruling would  in time spread to America. These two irritations were reason enough to try to establish an independent slave owning state, free to take Indian land.

But these factors alone were not enough. Rather it was the ham fisted way that the English government unilaterally required the Americans to make what was a quite fair contribution to their defence against the French.

“No taxation without representation” was their remarkably effective slogan. Michael Barone argues that the Glorious Revolution was the inspiration for the resulting War of Independence and the formation of the United States of America. The alternative model was not attractive to the Americans. This was a time when Europe was moving towards absolutism with the great example being in her dominant power, where the Sun King, Louis XIV was unchallenged. [v]

Absolutism, apparently modern and efficient seemed as much the way of the future as the gullible would later think the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Mao’s China. [vi] But out of one corner of Europe, as Barone puts it, an alternative had emerged. This was a “constitutional monarchy with limits on government, guaranteed rights, relatively benign religious toleration, and free market global capitalism.” [vii]

This Barone says was a long step forward toward the kind of society we take for granted now. It was the “the backdrop for the amazing growth, prosperity, and military success of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain—and for the American Revolution and the even more amazing growth, prosperity, and military success of the United States.” [viii]

“It changed England from a country in which representative government was threatened to one where it was ingrained, from a nation in which liberties were based on tradition to one in which they were based in part on positive law, from a nation where the place of religion was a matter of continued political dispute and even armed struggle to one where it was settled in a way that generally respected individual choice, from a nation that mostly kept apart from the wars of continental Europe to one that saw its duty as maintaining a balance of power there and around the world, ” he writes. [ix]

It was this English and British example of representative government was what inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States and the entire world [x].

It was copied –with minor variations – in the British colonies, many of which would become major nations. This improbable revolution, he argues, did much to shape the world as we know it. Mead writes that many of the values, ideas and attitudes which are thought to be part of “ America’s unique exceptionalism” actually came from Great Britain. [xi]

In particular, he says the ideas of the Glorious Revolution have left “a deep and abiding mark on political culture as well.” As only one example, he points out the Declaration of Independence itself was closely modelled on the Declaration of Right. The Glorious Revolution also guaranteed liberties. The “right to bear arms” was very different from the feudal obligation to bear arms. Rather than being an obligation to support the king and his government, it was now “a way for the freeman to protect his property and his liberty.”  Here we see the clear origin of the Second Amendment in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Barone also reminds us of the Third Amendment against quartering of troops, the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, and the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. [xii] The Glorious Revolution did not establish religious freedom, but neither did the US Bill of Rights.  It also prohibited a federal established church; it is only more recent judicial interpretation which has changed this into mandating the separation of church and state.

And it was not just in the constitution and the law that the Glorious Revolution guided America. It was also in her institutions and even her foreign policy. The Glorious Revolution had given Britain financial institutions similar to those of the United Provinces, which allowed it to be more effective in government, war and trade than the richer France. This preponderance of sophisticated intuitions was continued and developed in America.


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