“You’re the only people alive on the earth today. All those people who created traditions, created countries and created rules…they are dead. Why don’t you start your own world while you’ve got the chance?”
~ Bill Hicks.
What is rarely, if ever, taught in public education, much less heard in elite institutions of politics and media, is that this anti-authoritarian demand to be free of the past was one of the main views of the American revolutionaries, including many major leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, having openly defended direct democracy and majoritarianism. They often spoke of this problem as the ‘dead hand’; a criticism applied to any established institution, tradition, custom, norm, law, constitution, or holy book. Freedom is always in the present because it is the only moment in which to act freely. To live shackled to the past, in being beholden to the dead, is to not be truly alive; instead, it’s to be infected with the soul sickness of the zombified living dead. One of the greatest of oppressions is to be haunted by a past that controls one’s mind, identity, and ability to act; held with the vice-grip of commanding voices that possess the victim, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gríma Wormtongue whispering into the ear of King Théoden of Rohan.
During the American Revolution, the radical advocates for the living generation and living constitutionalism came to be called the Anti-Federalists, only because they lost the war of rhetoric when the so-called ‘Federalists’ took control in dismantling the Articles of Confederation and enforcing centralized government controlled by elites (this kind of radical critique, such as when Bill Hicks speaks it, is now identified as ‘liberal’ or ‘leftist’). But in reality the ‘Anti-Federalists’ were the strongest defenders of actual federalism as decentralized power and self-governance. Levi Preston, a revolutionary veteran, as an old man simply stated what the American Revolution was about, “Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” He clarified exactly what he meant. Right before that, he said, “Oppressions? I didn’t feel them. I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them. Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.” It was not a tax revolt, as if early working class Americans were willing to fight, sacrifice, and die in defense of capitalism. Their sense of freedom denied was much more visceral and communal, with political implications right from the start. They were social justice warriors. They understood that the political is personal and the personal is political.
Such righteous assertion of self-independence, self-autonomy, and self-governance — the Spirit of ’76 living in the Spirit of the People — is not possible if one places the authority of corpses and ghosts over one’s own self-authorization and self-authority, any more than one can be free by submitting to the power of an aristocrat, king, or pope (or dictator, demagogue, etc; or partisanship and lesser evilism). Every living generation, morally and practically, has no choice but to choose for themselves, again and again. Even choosing submission to the dead is a choice of the living and so responsibility for the consequences of that choice cannot be denied. That sense of freedom-loving, almost anarcho-libertarian, independence is why many of the revolutionaries didn’t see the revolution as having ended with the defeat of the British Empire and so continued to fight against corrupt and oppressive elites, including against the plutocratic and oligarchic Federalists (e.g., Shays’ Rebellion); with the Spirit of ’76 never having gone away. Jefferson’s hope and Paine’s promise spring eternal; as evidenced by the thousands of riots, revolts, uprisings, insurrections, protest movements, and mass strikes that have happened since that time.
The colonial working class radicals and revolutionaries weren’t the only ones who bucked against new oppressions replacing the old, even ignoring rare aristocrats like Jefferson. Many others understood or suspected that leading Federalists like Alexander Hamilton were consciously modeling the new ‘constitutional’ republic on the British Empire and the British East India Company, if those like James Madison figured it out too late. These Federalists aspired not to be free but to be the next ruling elite of an even greater global superpower. Such schemes were a real threat, as we can see with what the United States has become, but it’s obviously not like no one saw it coming. Consider moderate and principled Federalists like John Dickinson, initially resistant to revolution at all and later the draft author of the Articles of Confederation, who feared such imperialistic centralized and concentrated power; as expressed in his purse and sword argument (basically, an Anti-Federalist argument; and the Articles did become a touchstone of Anti-Federalist thought). Even the Anti-Federalist Abraham Clark, supposedly the one who suggested a constitutional convention, was unhappy about the results; to such an extent that he warned, “We may awake in fetters, more grievous, than the yoke we have shaken off.” That worry turned out to be prescient, like so many other Anti-Federalist warnings and predictions.
Decades later, Jefferson would admit in private correspondence that the experiment of constitutional republicanism had been a failure because the founders failed to understand the mother principle, that of democratic self-governance. He said that the Spirit of ’76 only lived on “in the spirit of our people“ (and in the “will of the people”; not in the constitution or government), the only hope that the gains of revolution would not be entirely lost. The people, as advocated by the Anti-Federalists, understood the soul of the American Dream better than the elite, as promoted by the faux Federalists. That fundamental conflict is what our country was founded upon and it remains with us to this day. Not even the American Civil War was able to undo that moral corruption and political foundering because there was no one in leadership who was wise enough and brave enough to throw the Ring of Power into Mount Doom when they had the chance, and indeed there were numerous opportunities to course correct, to revive the anti-authoritarian and egalitarian vision of the Articles of Confederation.
None of this is merely about the past but about the ever present choice of each and every new living generation. That is why Bill Hicks’ words resonate with us today, the same reason the words of the Anti-Federalists inspired revolution back then. The authority of those words are not in who said them, be it a comedian or a ‘Founding Father’. The force of those words is in knowing they speak truth for time immemorial, as we can verify that truth in our own minds, hearts, and souls; can observe it, test it, and prove it in our lived experience; can touch it, feel it, and know it in the world around us. The sense of being a living generation of people is not an abstraction but what cannot be denied. First appearing in the Axial Age, there was the notion that all living people, as individuals or communal selves, can have direct access via experience and relationship to ultimate truth, natural law, higher reality, or divine being.
The message of Hicks and the Anti-Federalists is ancient, fundamentally spiritual and religious in nature — as Levi Preston explained, “We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.” The point is that they read these texts for themselves, as literacy was becoming common, and so the words were brought to life by their own voices. Rising literacy rates and availability of reading material, including radical pamphlets written by Paine, was the main force behind the revolution of mind that preceded the revolution of government and society. With an emerging independent-mindedness, the once mostly indentured and wretchedly oppressed colonials were gaining confidence in themselves. Unlike in earlier eras, they could read for themselves, interpret what they read for themselves, think for themselves, and so act for themselves.
There was a change not only in mentality and identity, for it was part of an ongoing shift in an entire worldview, a transformation of experienced reality; what first was planted in the Axial Age, took root in the Middle Ages, and finally was coming to fruition in early modernity. It’s a sense of being enmeshed within and inseparably part of a living world. This is what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God being all around us. And it’s what the 14th century peasants meant, in revolting, when they demanded equality on Earth as it is in Heaven. That is what then inspired those like the Quakers, having come into their own during the radicalism of the English Civil War, to formulate their view of living constitutionalism; the source of John Dickinson’s thinking, as he was raised Quaker. Living constitutionalism, according to the Quakers, treats a constitution as a living document, not a dead piece of paper; for it is considered a compact between a living God and a living community, a specific living generation of people. Ironically, the reactionary right tries to cast shade on living constitutionalism as anti-traditional, when they know nothing of the traditions our society are actually built upon.
No one, not in the past nor in a distant place, can speak to anyone else on behalf of God or speak for anyone else in relationship to God (i.e., the highest truth, reality, and authority). We are all responsible for our own connection to and discernment of the ultimate. This is why natural law, now often co-opted as reactionary rhetoric, could in the past be perceived as radically dangerous in challenging the entire basis and justification for human law, as politically-established and government-enforced. That is what Jesus was invoking in challenging Jewish and Roman hierarchical authority and social institutions, casually dismissing them as if irrelevant with a zealous and charismatic confidence that the truth he knew could not be denied or harmed, no matter what the ruling elite and Roman soldiers may do to his body. In the living moment, he acted on, demonstrated, and proved the truth he spoke; emphasizing he was not special in this manner by telling others that they too were gods, of the Holy Spirit. The living God is not far away in Heaven but here on Earth. The living Revelation is not in the ancient past but right now. The living Word is not in a book but in the world. The living Reality is experienced and known by those with eyes to see, ears to hear.
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Let us make a small note here. We briefly mentioned the reactionary but didn’t go into further detail, as it wasn’t our present focus and we’ve talked about it plenty elsewhere. But as always, it can’t be ignored. What we did mention is how the reactionary has largely co-opted the rhetoric of natural law and so repurposed it to regressive ends. The deeper point, though, is that natural law originated in the radical, not the reactionary. A similar thing can be said of living constitutionalism. Sure, the reactionary can co-opt the social force and political results of living constitutionalism, as it can co-opt almost anything and everything. That is unfortunate, if it also shows the weakness and limitations involved. What the reactionary can never do is co-opt the moral force and motivating essence of natural law, living constitutionalism, and such. That is the beating heart that we are speaking of. The reactionary is always deadening. It is death and brings death to everything it touches, most of all rot of the human soul. It’s love versus fear, vitality versus anxiety, life versus death; but the two sides are far from being equal. One is light and the other mere shadow.
The living moral force of the living truth and reality is inherently and fundamentally radical and forever retains the radical; it is progressive and never regressive, liberating and never oppressive. All that radical literally means is a return to the root; and hence a return to underlying nature, fundamental truth, first principles. That is the point of showing the long history of this shared inheritance of profound wisdom, making clear that the roots of the radical go deep into human nature and human society. Not mentioned at all here is that the notion of a living experience of a living world is rooted even further down into the most archaic layers of our shared humanity, back to bicameral and animistic societies. No amount of reactionary co-option can undo this power. That is because it originates and is sourced within us, individually and collectively. As long as humans exist, the radical living challenge will remain potent and threatening. That is the whole point of why the reactionary feels compelled to co-opt the very thing that undermines it, in grotesquely wearing it like a superficial mask. This is the reason that a probing intellectual, spiritual, and moral discernment is of the utmost.
Yet it’s not only that the reactionary can’t undo the radical for neither can it stop it from spreading. That is precisely what has been happening these past millennia, as a new mentality has been taking hold, beginning as a spark and catching fire again and again. The Holy Spirit is a burning fire, the world aflame in light. The mistake many make is thinking that Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought is merely about a dully simple, reductionist, and materialistic individualism. But that false understanding is because the radicalism of the past has been obscured, as has been the radicalism of Western origins and the radicalism of the American founding. For instance, take the appearance in the ancient world, as if out of nowhere, of the idea that there is a common humanity, a universal human nature, a shared world, a single cosmos. During the Axial and post-Axial ages, that radical understanding came up in the words of numerous prophets, philosophers, wisdom teachers, gurus, and salvific figures. Human identities have grown ever broader over time. The peasantry, in revolting, came to an emergent class consciousness. The colonists, in revolting, upheld the ideal of global citizenship. Such an expanding and inclusive worldview keeps on growing, with each age of tumult bringing us to new understanding and a greater identity.
So, there is what is ancient to human society, even primal in having originated within the human psyche from millions of years of hominid evolution. To experience the living fusion of self and world, human and non-human is the undifferentiated state that forms the baseline of human existence. That isn’t to say differentiation, therefore, is bad; of course not. But starting millennia ago, a divide began to form, a mere crack at first, that has since fractured and splintered into modern psychosis. The radical impulse has never been to resist or deny differentiation that has made possible modern individuality, but neither has it sought to dismiss and devalue the communal identities of the past, the very ground of the bundled mind that we stand upon. Instead, what radical thinkers have advocated is how to transform and reform past communal identities, such that collective health and sanity can be maintained. Abstract identities, however, disconnect us from the living sense of belonging to others and to the larger world. For most of human existence, belonging has meant an identity of tribe built on a deep sense of place. That concrete immediacy and sensory immersion remains essential and necessary. Yet in a globalized interconnected society our ability to perceive a shared living reality is potentially immense; the imaginative capacity to sense, feel, understand, and know that other people are equally real. It’s the task before us, the ancient ideal and aspiration that guides us.
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Roger Williams and American Democracy
Founding Visions of the Past and Progress
Whose Original Intent?
Anti-Partisan Original Intent
US: Republic & Democracy (part two and three)
Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality
Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed
St. George Tucker On Secession
The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation
From Articles of Confederation to the Constitution
The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution
Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government
A Truly Free People
Nature’s God and American Radicalism
What and who is America?
Attributes of Thomas Paine
Predicting an Age of Paine
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
About The American Crisis No. III
Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus
Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood
Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington
Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost
Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution
Revolutions: American and French (part two)
Failed Revolutions All Around
The Violence of Bourgeois Revolutions and Authoritarian Capitalism
The Haunted Moral Imagination
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
“…from every part of Europe.”
The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
A Vast Experiment
The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty
America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest
When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory
Ancient Outrage of the Commoners
The Moral Axis of the Axial Age
Axial Age Revolution of the Mind Continues
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age
Leftism Points Beyond the Right and Beyond Itself