When George Washington took command of the Continental Army outside of Boston in the summer of 1775, he had to deal with a multitude of problems. He had to instill discipline in a rowdy group of soldiers, appoint officers, implement standards for camp hygiene, find supplies of gunpowder, and ensure a supply of food and other supplies. As he nearly drowned in a sea of details, actually fighting the British army seemed to be very far down the list of priorities.
Among the issues requiring Washington attention was the matter of flags. In particular, flags for warships. In October of 1775, Washington had commissioned six small ships and set them loose to prey on British shipping, hoping to interdict the supplies and reinforcements coming in to the British in Boston. Under maritime law, a commerce raider had to represent a legitimate authority, else the men sailing in it could be hanged as pirates. The ships would be sailing under the authority of the Continental Congress, but required a flag with which to identify themselves. Washington gave the assignment to Joseph Reed, a Pennsylvania politician who was serving as one of Washington's aides-de-camp.
Reed came up with what became known as the Pine Tree Flag, with a white background, a pine tree in the center (pine trees being a symbol of liberty, especially in New England), with the words "An Appeal To Heaven" emblazoned across the top.
The Pine Tree Flag became one of the most famous banners carried by the Patriot forces during the Revolutionary War.
The phrase "Appeal to Heaven" comes from John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689. The fact that the phrase was reproduced on a flag intended for widespread use demonstrates how much more intellectually sophisticated the politics of the late 18th Century were when compared to the politics of our own time. In Locke's formulation, government existed only for the purpose of protecting the rights of the people to life, liberty, and property, which cannot be sufficiently protected by individuals living in a state of nature. Government is, at best, a necessary evil. There exists a social contract between the people and their government, whether it was a republic, a monarchy, or whatever else, by which the government is obligated to protect the rights of the people. If the government turns against the people and attempts to use its power to destroy their liberties, the people have the right - indeed, the obligation - to revolt against the government. In other words, to "appeal to heaven."
The Patriots in the Revolutionary War certainly saw themselves as "appealing to heaven" in rebelling against British rule. One can read the Declaration of Independence, as well as the countless other proclamations and pamphlets published during those amazing years, and see how deeply the ideas of Locke suffused the political thought of the time. Because the British government had taxed them without their consent, sent standing armies to enforce unconstitutional laws, refused to consider their petitions for redress, and committed a whole host of other acts of oppression, the revolutionaries believed they had every right under natural law to revolt against Britain.
The important thing to bear in mind with the idea of the Appeal to Heaven is that, under natural law, it can be resorted to only when the people have no other possible choice. After all, the social contract works both ways. The people are obligated to recognize the legitimacy and authority of the government unless it is attempting to establish genuinely despotic rule. The Patriots repeatedly petitioned the British government to change its course, only to be ignored. They spent ten years trying to protect their rights through legal and nonviolent means, only to see such efforts fail. They resorted to outright rebellion only when they had no other choice.
I am thinking about this today because of some troubling and dangerous rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail here in the United States. The 2016 election has already been the biggest political train wreck I have seen in my life, with the image of American democracy being severely tarnished. But amid all the mudslinging, lying, and outright sleaze fed to us by the two most unpopular candidates in history, one thing has stood out to me as particularly disturbing: Donald Trump's assertion that the election was going to be "rigged" against him and that he might not accept the results of the voters. In other words, if he loses the election (which, as I type this blog entry, seems all but certain) it will only be because the election was unfairly stolen from him.
Now, I believe that the American electoral system is deeply flawed and in need of fundamental reforms. In the lead-up to this election, I've written about the need for ranked choice voting, the abolition of gerrymandering, and a national popular vote for President. But that kind of stuff is not what Trump is talking about. He complains about the media spreading stories about him, as if they have never done such a thing to a presidential candidate before. He also makes vague and unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud in minority communities, though he strangely doesn't bother reporting any concerns to the state or municipal authorities in charge of elections. Trump has publicly said that he will only accept the election result as legitimate if he wins. I would expect words like that to come out of the mouth of men like Hugo Chavez or Robert Mugabe, but I would never have expected them to come out of the mouth of an American politician.
Trump's base of millions of loyal supporters, or at least a large chunk of it, is apparently eating up what he's saying. At Trump campaign rallies, many supporters have vocalized their desire to see a "rebellion" or "revolution" in the event that Hillary Clinton is declared the winner. Some have even said outright that there will be violence and bloodshed. On October 11, a Trump supporter at a rally told the vice presidential nominee Mike Pence that she was "ready for a revolution" if Clinton wins, with the rest of the crowd applauding warmly (Pence, to his credit, told her that such comments were unacceptable). Since then, such comments have become par for the course at Trump events all over the country.
This is no laughing matter, nor can it be dismissed as the ravings of a few unstable individuals. The American people are more politically polarized today than at any time since the Civil War. With Mr. Trump saying and tweeting almost hourly his contention that the election will be "rigged" the legitimacy of the entire American political system is being cast in question. More than two centuries of established political tradition require the loser in an election to concede that he lost and not contest the assumption of office by the victor. This tradition is one of the bulwarks of our democracy, not unlike the British's monarch's refusal to intervene in political matters is a bulwark of British democracy.
In 1800, President John Adams, a Federalist, lost his bid for reelection to Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, it marked the first time that one political party was required to hand over power to another political party. It was a fateful moment in American history and represented a test that far too many nations have since failed to pass. How many nations in Latin America or Africa have secured independence from the European empires, only to become authoritarian one-party states when the defeated parties in early elections refused to recognize their validity? The fact that John Adams accepted the will of the people and handed over power was one of the man's man gifts to America. The grouchy old crank did refuse to attend Jefferson's inauguration, but the idea that he would refuse to accept the result of the election never seems to have entered his mind.
There is an enormous distinction between living under a tyranny that might require an "Appeal to Heaven" and simply losing an election, which many Americans today do not seem to recognize. I am not myself a supporter of Hillary Clinton, but if she wins the election, she will be the next President of the United States. It's as simple as that and Donald Trump and his supporters will need to accept it, just as Democrats would need to accept the inauguration of Trump in the (now unlikely) event that he wins the election. If one of the two major political factions starts refusing to recognize the validity of election outcomes, our entire political structure will buckle and eventually collapse.
There are occasions in history where circumstances are so desperate that an Appeal to Heaven is necessary, but only as an absolute last resort. Simply losing an election to a candidate that you don't like is not one of those occasions. Talking as though it might be is not only irresponsible, but downright dangerous.