1776: A Good Thing or Not? Reflections on the American Revolution
(This was something I wrote back in 2007, in another blog-sphere, in a “contest” of sorts with a friend, where he argued that the American Revolution was a positive factor in world history whereas I defended the position that it was negative).
We hear references to the Founding Fathers of the United States, exceptional and noble men who helped change history; men like Washington and Jefferson and Franklin and Hamilton and John Adams. We hear their stirring words, words like “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence itself. We hear of their eventual victory in an unequal struggle to secure this country’s independence and liberty from a tyrant of a king ruling over the world’s mightiest empire. We might even hear that the American Revolution kick-started a movement for democracy and human rights that continues across the globe today.
When I hear and read these things, the contrarian in me comes to the fore. Actually, factually, we’re bamboozling ourselves a bit with our own propaganda.
First of all, George III of England was no “tyrant,” despite the histrionics of the Declaration of Independence (itself a piece of propaganda) and revolutionary rhetoric. He was a constitutional monarch, and proud of that fact, ruling via legitimately passed laws through Parliament via his prime ministers, men such as Lords Grenville and Chatham and North. What the king’s governments were trying to do was to address a legitimate problem, the fact that Great Britain had run up substantial debt in large part due to defending the colonies during the wars with France ending in 1763. The colonies themselves had contributed ineffectively, and unequally, to their own defense, despite the fact that the colonies likely enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world; and, compared to their English brethren, were under-taxed. Even with the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act and the Tea Act and the Intolerable Acts, the colonists would still have been taxed considerably less than their British counterparts.
Moreover, some of the British government’s reforms that raised colonial ire not the passing of new laws, but the tightening of old ones—in an attempt to raise revenue by correcting corruption and promoting enforcement. Yes, there was the rallying cry of “No Taxation without Representation” that was raised as justification. What many don’t realize today, however, is that there were attempts to meet the colonists halfway. First of all, we must remember that colonial ire did get the British to repeal some of the laws, like the Stamp Act, which had raised so much resistance. This seems hardly the action of a government intent on browbeating the colonies into abject submission. Indeed, the British were not of one mind on the wisdom of their policies; the colonists had many powerful friends in London. It’s even possible that one of the reasons hostilities broke out was that the many colonists came to believe that if unpopular British laws and taxes were always met with a show of resistance, even force, that the British government would always back down. It was only after numerous provocations, including the intimidation and outright physical attack against officials trying to collect the hated taxes (officials only trying to do their job), that the British government was angered enough to crack down (against the city of Boston).
Even after hostilities had begun there were attempts to hold out an olive branch, albeit late, starting in 1775. There was a proposal by Lord Chatham to recognize the legitimacy of the Continental Congress, there was a proposal by Edmund Burke to repeal all of the hated acts since 1763 and work out a new imperial system, and after Saratoga (too late, the French were already committed) the British were willing to concede almost everything that the Continental Congress had wanted to stave off independence. True, some of these proposals might not have been able to pass Parliament. But I wonder even seating the colonies in Parliament, or any other solution offered that would have given the them representation, would that have really settled the issue. It’s hard not to believe that simple greed and selfishness was a motivating factor for many colonists. Come another war some 30 years later, the War of 1812, this selfishness would be illustrated within the new republic, when southern and western states ended up voting for the war with Britain but then turned around and voted against attempts to raise the money to pay for it.
Then there was the conduct of the war itself. Unlike the myth, the war wasn’t a case of British numbers and might being overcome by the plucky, smarter, American underdog. It was the case of the British professional army by and large beating the Americans time and again hands-down in anything like a fair fight—only to be daunted by the distances and numbers. The British had the quality; the Americans had the numbers (mostly in irregular or guerrilla forces). Washington’s career as a general included more defeats than victories; pretty much any city the British wanted, they were able to capture: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. The British problem was, however, that their armies could only be in so many places at once, and where they weren’t, patriot forces usually regained the upper hand over their loyalist counterparts. In many ways the Revolutionary War was Britain’s Vietnam 200 years before Vietnam.
Key in winning the war was the ability of Washington and his officers (including the likely gay Baron von Steuben) to turn the Continental Army into a real professional-quality fighting force that could fight, European-style. Also key was the Dutch, and later French, aid and supplies. Despite the NRA rhetoric about every American home having a flintlock musket over the fireplace, arms and powder and ammunition were in short supply in colonial America. And, in one of the remarkable coincidences in world history, the post-1763 reforms of the French navy (instituted by Admiral de Grasse) for once made it nearly the equal of the British; just in time to help secure American independence. The decisive victory at Yorktown was only possible with the decisive aid of the French navy.
Also glossed over by in our patriotic celebrations are some ugly facets of colonial America which don’t make our struggle look very positive. One of the ways that the British angered the colonists was the Proclamation Line of 1763—which they did to mollify and protect Native American interests. We don’t want to remember today in the Declaration of Independence includes a reference to attacks by merciless “Indian Savages”; and that many Native American tribes saw (probably correctly) that the best interests of them and their peoples lay in the continuation of British rule rather than unchecked colonial land greed. And of course, there is the ugly institution of human slavery. Another little-known fact about the American Revolution is that the British offered slaves manumission in return for service, something that horrified Washington and other patriot members of the slave-owning class. In these aspects of the Revolution it was the British, not the colonists, who were fighting for human liberty and dignity.
Finally, we also forget that the American Revolution to some extent was a civil war—it wasn’t just the redcoats versus the colonials, it was Americans vs. Americans as well—”patriot” vs. “loyalist” killed one another over honest disagreements over where their loyalty should lie. It even split families; in one famous example, it forever estranged Benjamin Franklin from his son, William. After the revolution was over, some loyalists saw their property confiscated and were hounded out the country. Some 70,000 chose to leave—that’s 3 % of the total American population. The title picture for this blog is of a re-enactment of a loyalist being executed.
Certainly tragedy is unavoidable given human conflict. But was it worth it? Were the colonies really threatened with despotism and the loss of self-government? The long-term answer, based on the experience of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and other components of the British empire, is “no”. All these countries eventually developed their own democratic institutions, were granted a large degree of autonomy, and eventually complete independence. It’s hard to imagine the Thirteen Colonies not doing likewise. It’s hard to imagine what benefits were gained by the Revolution that wouldn’t have been equally gained if a last-minute compromised had been reached, a compromised that maintained unity yet addressed the legitimate needs of both parties. Moreover, the colonies remaining within the British Empire might have had salutatory effects on American history. The empire abolished slavery in 1838; perhaps the bloody cataclysm of the American Civil War could have been avoided if American slavery had been abolished at that time as well, in a single stroke? British oversight might have curbed some of the worst excess of America’s campaign of genocide against Native Americans; it’s hard to imagine how it could have made it worse.
Looking further down the road, what impact on world history would a British Commonwealth that included the burgeoning power of the United States have had? Perhaps the First World War would have averted–maybe Germany dare not risk British intervention by invading Belgium in 1914? Without WWI, there’s no Hitler, no WWII, no Stalin, no Holocaust. It’s really hard to say, but here too, a lot of misery in the world might have been avoided. Maybe earlier, no French revolution and revolutions of 1848—though whether or not avoiding these is a positive is a harder assessment to make. Certainly the success of the American revolution inspired liberal and pro-democratic thought around the globe, but some could contend that the revolutions that followed it sowed the seeds of totalitarianism, the curse of the last century.
I’d like to close this essay with a quote from one of our most talented of Founding Fathers—Benjamin Franklin, who said:
There never was a good war or a bad peace.
I think that despite our self-congratulation about it, this is true of our Revolutionary War as well. Things might have turned out better if it compromise and continued unity had supplanted confrontation and bloodshed.