The American Revolution was inspired, in part, by the notion that the British Parliament looked on the American colonists as subjects dependent on the Crown for every part of their existence and activities. The Crown wanted control of their direction and choices. Charles Townsend, in arguing for the adoption of the Townsend Acts—which taxed colonial glass, paper, paints, lead, and tea—supported his argument by declaring that the colonists were children “planted by our care and nourished up by our indulgence.” Thus, Townsend believed, Britain was entitled to the first-fruits of colonial revenue, completely at Parliament’s discretion, without regarding the rights of citizens or their individual interests. He was rebuked by Colonel Isaac Barre, who said in defense of the colonies:
“Planted by your care? No, your oppressions planted them in America…they fled from tyranny…They, nourished up by your indulgence? They grew because of your neglect of them…And believe me, remember I this day told you so, that the same spirit of freedom which actuated that people at the first, will accompany them still…”
This was the spirit of freedom that Tocqueville found in his tour of America in the early 19th century. Americans, he said, will “inform you of what his rights are, and by what means he exercises them.” Every man worked to earn a living, Tocqueville observed, and expected his neighbors to do the same.
Whether in a skilled trade or agriculture, man expected remuneration and expected to earn a profit. In this there was pride in self-sufficiency and honor in labor. Since men engaged in commerce freely, consensually, and individually, most communities did not need the interference of government to conduct their affairs.
Self-preservation, Locke said, was the very definition of “reasonable behavior.” Self-preservation then, of necessity, requires the right to work and to keep the profits—whether material or currency—of that work, so one could provide the essentials of life. To that right could be extended the rights of property ownership, though Locke extended this right to mean more than simply material things. It extended to whatever a man possessed—his faculties, his abilities, his thoughts—that which he produced himself, whether with his hand, mind, or conscience.
He had the right to use these things however he wished in his pursuit of self-preservation, so long as he did not harm to his neighbor. As part of a community, he could enter mutually beneficial economic exchanges with others also engaged in those same individual pursuits.
The right to keep the fruits of his labor and freely engage in mutually beneficial economic exchanges without excessive government interference—as Tocqueville had observed—was instrumental to America’s success, Reagan said. The belief that government should somehow be the primary recipient of what individual citizens earned was contrary to our founding principles and the God-given rights of men.
Jefferson listed “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world” and “imposing taxes on us without our consent” as the two primary means by which British Parliament imposed on the free enterprise of Americans. Reagan’s criticism of government deciding how much of our earnings we could keep, and the terms on which we could do business, was simply a contemporary illustration of a two-century old argument.
Though the right to the fruit of one’s labor could also be found in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, where he based this belief on natural rights, one can refer to the both the Old and New Testament for the divine right to do the same. The great pioneer of Western Civilization, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” (I Tim. 5:18 KJV).
Here Paul cites the ancient Mosaic Law. The principle is metaphorical and illustrates a divine expectation. It need not apply just to the ox. The man who labors is also entitled to compensation for his labor. It is unjust to take from a man that which he has worked for. Government has no right to take the earnings of a laborer any more than the farmer has the right to not compensate the work of his beast—a simple illustration of a natural right. For many to be truly independent and self-governing, he must be free to pursue the relationships which best served his interests.
These very simple concepts of individual freedom given in Reagan’s Inaugural Address can be found with an observant walk through history. They were responsible for America’s prosperity. This is why she is exceptional. The creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans was their personal property and government had no authority to take from it or stifle it. If we remove government obstacles, Reagan said, America could be restored to greatness. This was her God-given heritage.
In his closing remarks in Democracy in America Tocqueville said that “Providence has not created mankind entirely independent or entirely free.” He was right. He is dependent and accountable, in equal station, to the “Laws of nature and of Nature’s God.” Will government lead men to servitude or freedom? Freedom. That was Reagan’s and history’s hope.
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