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Rebellions sometimes serve two masters at the same time—righteousness and evil. It’s not always simple telling them apart; while struggling for one, we may inadvertently find the other, despite the best of intentions, with woeful consequences. History is rife with examples of revolutions proclaiming freedom yet serving enslavement, usurpation, even genocide.
Legitimate freedom movements have sprung up in Western traditions in the past. Both Exodus and the resurrection of Jesus are examples attesting to emancipation from bondage while advocating freedom to follow God-given, revealed laws.
Dubious rebellions in the name of freedom, but achieving the opposite, also exist. Particularly in politics and power struggles, often motives are murky, evil is hidden, and words like liberty are easily abused.
A rebellion in the Middle Ages compelled King John of England to sign Magna Carta—widely celebrated as a milestone for freedom and common law today.
Centuries later, the English Civil War and subsequent “Glorious Revolution” erupted, which more resembled a proto-Bolshevik usurpation than a freedom movement, goading the people into tearing down an edifice while wolves waited in the wings.
America’s revolution, like England’s in some respects, in 1776 undoubtedly established a foothold for freedom. Yet little did we realize the efforts in the Great Experiment would be clandestinely undermined, leaving the question of liberty to hang in the balance to this day.
It will be useful to explore these revolts and how they played a role in our tradition called freedom—shedding light on just how complicated that word really is, while helping us exhume its inner meaning.
I. Of Kings, Contracts, and Magna Carta
Magna Carta was an early contract between a ruler and his subjects, a constitutional precursor limiting the king’s powers. It introduced a proto-parliamentary system, a novel concept in the Middle Ages, to be echoed in later centuries.
Prior to Magna Carta, monarchs ruled by a tradition called “the divine right of kings,” or absolutism, which holds that monarchical power is God-given and absolute (This robust license, interestingly, echoes in the extraordinary powers of America’s executive branch, as established by the Founding Fathers, facilitating swift decision-making to protect the nation in war time). King John of England (1166 to 1216) wasn’t the first monarch to follow this divine-right custom, nor the last to meet resistance for doing so.
John was beset by troubles in 1203; after losing much of his land in Normandy, he established his base in England, where he ran into further discord for refusing Pope Innocent III’s demand to have Stephen Langton as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. This led to John’s excommunication in 1209. The pope in those days crowned all the monarchs of Europe—such was his power—and just as easily could he strip their crowns away.
After his excommunication, John’s power waned, while the nobles of England and King Philip II of France soon mounted opposition against him. Twenty-five rebellious barons stood up to oppose John’s licentious tax collection on lands he didn’t own, and his arbitrary confiscation of church property. The barons insisted the old feudal laws laid down by William the Conqueror be reinstated. They drew up Magna Carta and in 1215 forced John to sign it. This diplomatic dispute between King John and the barons became known as the First Barons’ War, ending in 1217 after John’s death.
In order to curb John’s transgressions, the document barred the king from taxing his subjects. The barons, like parliament today and America’s Legislature, would represent serfs on their land, collect taxes, and approve the king’s funding—a tradition that came to be called the “power of the purse.” In addition, it established rule of law and due process, so that subjects could not arbitrarily be detained or punished. There were other provisions as well.
Magna Carta set a powerful precedent for English common law and is still held in high esteem in America today. Though not everyone sang its praises; the contract was frequently ignored by kings who upheld the custom of divine right, whose contempt for Magna Carta became tradition in its own right—echoing in the adversarial system of checks and balances in America, where different branches are expected to tie each other up and duke it out!
In that vein, King Charles I would follow, some four centuries later, telling his parliament where to go with their demands.
And the result? Another revolution.
II. A Usurpation of British Crowns
Over 400 years later, King Charles I (1600 to 1649), like John before him, met resistance from his parliamentary members. The dispute ended in regicide—with a public beheading in London—followed by a revolution that would forever reshape the political landscape in England.
With parliament now a fixture in Britain, echoing Magna Carta, its members in 1628 wrote a “Petition of Right” to the king (its provisions strikingly similar to the barons’ demands), which implied that Magna Carta hadn’t been honored. The petition was cordial, yet with equal candor Charles’s response was to remind them of another custom: parliament had always been an advisory institution (They couldn’t issue laws yet). Charles, like John, followed the divine-right principle.
Despite this disharmony, Charles nevertheless hoped to unite a nation deeply divided. Amidst the Reformation, society was fractured into camps of religion—Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Puritan, and Calvinist; there were national divisions—Irish, Scottish, English, and foreign interests; while some groups were more radical than others.
The king’s discord with parliament led him to dissolve the house for 11 years (from 1629 to 1640)—until a Scottish uprising broke out and he needed funds. Reinstated, a now hostile parliament rebelliously proclaimed laws (which it still could not do; unlike the American Legislature, parliament then was basically a tax collection agency without the power to legislate) and they forbade Charles from dissolving it—amounting to open revolt.
So, Charles opted to arrest the rogue representatives for treason but was brazenly blocked from doing so. Fleeing London, he sought support from rural areas in the north, which were more loyal to the king, and he mustered an army, the Royalists. Audaciously, parliament mounted an armed force of its own, called the Roundheads, comprised of radicals called the Levellers—a proto-communist faction that wanted to abolish all property. The parliamentarian forces would be led by talented military commander Oliver Cromwell.
And so revolution erupted into civil war.
A “Glorious” Revolution
In 1642, the two armies clashed on the battlefield in what came to be called the First English Civil War. The conflict would not be resolved until the Second Civil War in 1648, however, when Charles was defeated and imprisoned. Cromwell wanted him tried and executed, while most of the parliament wanted to settle with the king. Those members who were noncompliant with Cromwell were purged, and of the 50 who remained, called the “Rump Parliament,” two-thirds were the radical Levellers. They condemned the king; yet even still, no lawyer would draw up a criminal charge, until a revolutionary foreigner was found to do the deed.
So in March 1649, in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall in London, King Charles I was publicly beheaded.
Just as King John had waned after his excommunication, so was monarchical power extinguished after Charles I, its royalty relegated to the role of figurehead to this day. Its power was handed to parliament, which henceforth would be administered through The Crown of England (not the monarch), subject to the same office that stripped John of his kingship centuries earlier.
Before his death in 1658, Oliver Cromwell went on to implement a dictatorial reign of terror throughout Britain and Ireland. Declaring himself Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, he instituted a policy of ethnic cleansing in Ireland, systematically starving some 500,000 men, women, and children by burning crops. What followed was a revolution that saw the loss of sovereignty itself.
A now powerless monarchy was “restored” in 1660, but the rules had clearly changed. In the decades that followed, the social order was overturned: the Great Fire of London devastated the city in 1666; the “Glorious Revolution” in 1688 saw another king (James II) overthrown (replaced by his daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband, William of Orange); the Bank of England was founded in 1694; and usury plunged the nation into eternal financial bondage.
Was this really about freedom? Or power and wealth?
Notably, the English Bill of Rights was signed in 1689, which besides giving monarchical power over to parliament also outlined provisions for religious freedom, freedom to bear arms, freedom of speech, and other items emulating Magna Carta. These would echo again in America’s Bill of Rights a century later.
III. Of American Revolution and Roman Law
Charles I’s father, King James I (1566 to 1625), held the throne when the first Puritan separatists set sail for the colonies and founded Jamestown in 1607—showing their displeasure for the Scottish monarch who, like Charles, hoped to unite Britain under one religion. It wouldn’t be until 1776 that the Founding Fathers would declare the nation’s independence, citing unfair taxation from the mother country; as the French and Indian War had depleted England’s coffers, the colonists were candidates to foot the bill. Eventually pushed to the precipice, they revolted, formed a militia, and prepared to meet the British regular army, the redcoats, on the battlefield.
Determined to start a new, free republic, the Founding Fathers formed a union trust for a federation of nation states—the 13 colonies would become the United States of America. By 1775, the war was on. George Washington’s untrained militia was no match for the well-oiled British army; yet with support from French Brigadier General Marquis de Lafayette and France, who supplied arms and infantry, they defeated the British and won their liberty—or so they thought.
After the Peace of Paris Treaty ended the war in 1783, the Constitution in 1788 was finally ratified. The Founding Fathers decreed that the People were “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” their nation was to be governed by American common law and a limited government with enumerated powers; they also formed a commercial trade union (a confederation of states) for commerce—but the People were to preside over all these institutions, not vice versa.
Yet the fight for freedom wasn’t over after beating the British, for the monarchy and its army were just the administrators of the colonial enterprise—the property managers, so to speak; America still had to square its claim with the landowners, The Crown and the Lord Mayor of London under the Holy Seal, which wouldn’t be so simple. The republic would have to reckon with Roman (or Justinian) law, as dealt by those offices, and the fact that ideas of freedom didn’t jive well with everyone.
Roman law administration would eventually sneak in and assert a claim in the new nation.
“THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA INC.”
The sneak began around the time of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), which, although fought in the name of freedom—slavery was how it was sold—clearly served clandestine designs. The industrial revolution was on and both England and France wanted to break up the American South’s cotton monopoly during the textile boom—and put an end to this business of a republic once and for all. A civil war, if induced, would weaken the nation, leaving it ripe for the picking. Although this plan to carve up America failed, more intrigue followed.
Despite what men such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant have said, slavery was not the primary cause of the war.
Suffice it to say that the North bankrupted the Confederation (the trade union, not to be confused with the Federation binding the republic) and then tried to pull the South into a newly incorporated arrangement which was not in accord with the original contract—the Constitution. The South cried foul and refused, so Lincoln led the newly formed “Grand Army of the Republic” to force them into the deal. The resulting Civil War cost some 600,000 lives, and bankrupted the enterprise again, while foreign interests waited in the wings.
That might have been the plan all along.
No kings were beheaded after America’s Civil War, unlike in Britain. But just as the monarchy had waned after the Glorious Revolution, so did America’s Constitution decline after the Civil War; by around 1871, a new corporate constitution had been drafted, one that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have recognized.
All it took was the duplicitous language of Roman law to turn the nation on its head. “People,” living souls with God-given rights, became “persons,” legal fictions without rights; common law courts, administering natural and revealed laws, were replaced by civil law institutions without such constraints; the sovereign jurisdiction of land and soil was swapped for civil sea law (also called admiralty law or maritime law) jurisdiction where no such sovereignty existed; thusly, the new corporate government could rule over the people, not the reverse, and be administered offshore.
What came next? Further bankruptcies led to the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1913; the institution of monetary socialism extracted the people’s wealth and plunged the nation into debt; the Great Depression led to mass starvation and the formation of a proto-socialist state; two world wars erupted, with many pointless wars following; the media and education system were infiltrated, the culture demoralized; and as morality declined, so did liberty.
Interestingly, America’s civil rights movement followed the Civil War as the English Bill of Rights had followed the Glorious Revolution. Through legislation, the movement established protections from discrimination against race, religion, or other personal characteristics and is held in high esteem to this day.
Yet, civil acts are granted by government, not God. As we previously learned from Sir William Blackstone—it bears repeating—they have neither the “power to abridge or destroy” nor grant “stronger sanction” to rights “which God and nature have established.”
So what became of this Great Experiment of freedom in the end?
One could say that the revolution continues today.
Humans inherently desire to live as nature and nature’s Creator intended; wherever people suffer under tyranny and persecution, there’s the temptation to throw off the yoke of oppression in the name of that precarious word, freedom. Yet, evil latches onto that temptation, playing revolutionaries and the radically minded like pawns in a game, forging vengeful anger into chains.
Yes, patriotism, courage, and loyalty are virtues of a free republic, whose sons and daughters swore an oath to protect her. Yes, there are times to boldly speak and to act. But pay heed! Though violence may satiate the momentary passion, our ancestors, in their wisdom, knew to play the long game: “Love thy enemy,” forgive, have faith. Tyrants would rather see fire and fury than noble spirits enduring with lasting grace and fortitude.
Only through grace shall we reap the blessings divine providence bestows.
This is the second article in the trilogy “A Tradition Called Freedom: The People, The Times, The Belief.” Click here to read Part 1. The next will dive into the faux freedom claims of communism, foiled by capitalism, and the origins of this tradition called freedom.
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