Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Decentralizing Power is the Essence of the American Ideal

It is probably accurate to say that America was founded upon the colonists’ desperate desire for decentralization of power.

During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the British Parliament passed a law in 1582 that made it treason, punishable by death, to worship in any way other than that permitted by the Church of England which, of course, was controlled by the queen.

When King James took the throne upon Queen Elizabeth’s death, one thousand hopeful clergyman signed the Millenary Petition in January of 1604 asking for greater freedom and purer worship within the state-governed Church of England.

King James scorned their request, declaring “I will make them conform themselves or I will harry them out of the land.” The king correctly recognized that a free church was inherently a threat to the centrality of his power. “I will have one doctrine,” he said, “one religion in substance and ceremony.”

The merchants, yeomen, farmers and tradesmen who came to America for financial reasons were desperate for a home where they would be free to prosper or fail in a system of meritocracy without the central government dictating to them the terms of their labor.

The world’s people had never been free before America was colonized.

The tribal chiefs and kings of the Guinea Coast of Africa had been practicing slavery for hundreds of years before they began trading captured slaves for European trade goods in the 16th century.

American Indians also captured and traded slaves. The Native American tribe known as the Illinois had an extensive trade network in which they would trade captured Pawnees and other Great Plains tribes as slaves. In the East, the Eno were a slave-trading tribe of the Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont who used Occaneechi Island as a trading mart to distribute slaves captured from enemy tribes. (One historian even theorizes that Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony got lost by dispersion through the Eno slave market.)

In China in the 1600s, under the Ming Dynasty, the hereditary chieftains and “manorial lords” kept taxes and tribute flowing to the Ming royal court, often through the use of slavery, but always with the use of forced labor.

In Europe, people lived under the feudal or “tied labor” system as bondmen, villains, and serfs. It is estimated that a quarter to half the population of 17th century England could not make enough money in one day to buy a loaf of bread. They had no rights to own land or property, but were paid with shares of the produce they labored for, and received only the few privileges which the lords who held the land chose to grant to them. The lords themselves also had no true freedom, but were under a strict and often arbitrary system of submission to their king.

Before the colonists landed at Jamestown and Plymouth, no person on earth had any real freedom, nor any hope of obtaining it. They could only wish for whatever prerogatives might be granted to them by their king, emperor, master, chief, or warlord. Before that day, nowhere on earth did a person have the full collection of rights that we do: to own our own land; to choose our occupation; to select our leaders; to worship as we wish; or, simply, to be free.

The rights to life, liberty, and happiness are, and have always been, inextricably intertwined with individual freedom which can only exist where religious, financial and political powers are decentralized. That was, and should continue to be, the essence of the American Ideal.

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