In the midst of a growing struggle to free themselves from the most powerful nation on earth, the American colonial rebels recognized something about tyranny that reverberates in our time. It was not that there would be leaders who sought to concentrate power in themselves, but that there would always be people who sought the heavy hand of authoritarianism.
As a remedy, the Declaration of Independence offered, “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Consent was necessary to secure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Key among the authors of the Declaration’s grievances was the charge that the king of England had “refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Then, as now, there were citizens who preferred a leader who held himself above the law.
The current occupant of the White House is the focus of those who fear a return to the rule of the few over the will of the many. But Donald Trump is far from the only leader threatening American democracy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to allow a vote on an Obama administration choice to fill a Supreme Court vacancy will be looked at by historians as a turning point. That Merrick Garland was blocked from the confirmation process by the will of a single person was exactly the kind of usurpation of power the founders saw in the king. That an entire political party today might ignore foreign attempts to alter the outcome of an election has antecedents in colonists who favored compromise over freedom and rules made in London, not Philadelphia.
Loyalists, those who favored retaining royal power in America, varied in number and point of view in the colonies. Never numbering above a third of the population, their most commonly held trait was deep conservatism, though their places in society varied. Some were merchants and investors whose fortunes were built on a system that revolved around British rule. Others were fearful of anarchy or mob rule and felt comfort with a king.
There is great irony in that many of the loudest voices crying for “liberty” today are likely to have been among those clinging to English authority had they lived 243 years ago. Those calling themselves patriots now might then have been most resistant to the American ideal.