It seemed fitting over Independence Day weekend to watch the 1997 PBS documentary series Liberty!: The American Revolution. I enjoyed seeing actors and actresses (especially the lovely Donna Murphy as Abigail Adams) voice the thoughts of historical figures from diaries and letters.
I am familiar with the events of 19 April 1775 and I was appalled that the Battle of Concord — the first battle in the war for independence — was not discussed at all. In fact that battle and the redcoats’ subsequent retreat along Battle Road were barely even mentioned. Other important battles in the war were much better described.
I was struck by the way anti-Federalist fears of an overweening Federal government have come to pass, exactly as people feared in 1787-1788.
On the Senate:
Look at the Senate being created by the new Constitution: six years, and they can be reelected as long as they please. It’s really an appointment for life! And they’ll be in this new federal city, surrounded by walls of gold — gold flowing in from all our pockets. And they’ll live in this Eden with their fellow Senators, far away from any knowledge of how ordinary people live.
On Congress generally:
These lawyers and men of learning, these moneyed men who talk so finely and gloss over the details so smoothly to make us poor folk swallow down the pill — they’re the ones who will go to Congress. They’ll get all the power and all the money into their own hands and they’ll swallow up all of us little folks.
On Federal government power:
Governmental power will introduce itself into every corner of the country. It will wait upon the ladies at their toilette. It will enter the house of every gentleman; watch over his cellar; wait upon his cook in the kitchen; penetrate into the most humble cottage; and it will touch the head of every person in the United States. And to all of these different people the message from the government will be the same: give, Give, GIVE!
James Madison believed these fears were groundless:
Liberty is not protected by parchment barriers. It is the very system of this new government which will protect us. Government is separated into different branches, each with a different mode of election and each having different powers. Ambition will be made to counteract ambition.
Instead, ambition has been made to reinforce ambition as all three branches of government conspire to further and further restrict what remains of our freedom.
John Adams wrote on 20 April 1775:
Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.
I believe he would be ashamed of what we’ve allowed to become of the freedom his generation bequeathed us, and I suspect he’s been repenting in Heaven for a very long time.