Jefferson: a loud yelper for liberty.
Studying history always makes you a bit of a fatalist: coming to terms with the complexity of the past means realizing that large scale social changes are like tsunamis; they change the world and you have can react to them but you can’t stop them. You have to deal with the fait accompli and the facts on the ground, giving you a peculiar conservative respect even for large scale revolutionary change. I may not like what Robespierre or Mao stood for but there is no going back to the world before they existed. For that reason, counterfactual scenarios always seem flimsy and improbable: how can we measure out all the repercussions of history taking another path?
Having said that, I was amused by Matthew Yglesias having second thoughts about the American Revolution. “Taking the long view, independence looks more like the somewhat tragic result of short-sighted thinking on both sides than like a heroic triumph for the forces of liberty,” Yglesias reflected. (Unlike most American foreign policy pundits, Yglesias doesn’t regard negotiations and compromise as inherently contemptible, hence he’s willing to entertain the thought that the American Revolution could have been avoided by adroit diplomacy).
As a Canadian I rather like the idea of the American Revolution being aborted and our Yankee cousins staying within the Empire. Among other things it would have meant that slavery would have ended in America a generation earlier and without violence (the British outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery in 1834).
Why was the Abolishionist movement stronger in the Empire than the land of the Declaration of Independence?
1) The American Revolution greatly increased the political power of the Southern planter class (who made up the early presidents and had disproportionate power due to the 3/5th clause of the Constitution). Garry Wills makes this point superbly in his book “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power: because slaves were disenfranchised but counted as 3/5th of a person in the census, southern white voters had political power greatly in excess of their numbers, allowing them to dominate the congress, the presidency and the supreme court prior to the Civil War.
2) The Revolution enshrined Lockean notions of property rights in the new Republic, making it more difficult to challenge slavery. (In the Empire, the Crown remained supreme and could therefore override the property “rights” of slave owners in the Caribbean).
Another group that would have benefited from America staying in the Empire were the native Indians. The British had a much more conciliatory policy towards native tribes than the land-hungry revolutionaries (see the Declaration of Independence on this point; a big complaint was that the British weren’t allowing the Americans to wipe out the natives). It’s difficult to imagine that if the Americans had stayed as part of the Empire you would have had the horrors of Andrew Jackson and the trail of tears.
Basically, the American Revolution was bad for blacks and Indians but good for white southerners. Samuel Johnson, a Tory opponent of the American Revolution, was right to ask, “”How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”(Taxation No Tyranny, 1775)
For confirmation of this argument, consider the Loyalists. Contrary to popular stereotypes, they weren’t just Tory gentry unwilling to accept democracy. The Loyalists included a wide swath of people who were marginalized by the American Revolution including freed slaves, native Indians along the Great Lakes, and Quakers (unwilling take up arms for or against the Revolution).
In effect, the American Revolution gave strength to the white, Anglo-Saxon majority but it marginalized many other elements of society. Subsequent “democratic” revolutions in the 19th century had the same effect: Andrew Jackson led a political movement that empowered poor whites even as slaughtered the Indians and disenfranchised freed slaves (and marginalized women from the public sphere).
The rise of American democracy is not a story of unequivocal and unambiguous progress: at every step of the way someone, usually groups already socially marginalized, suffered. Like Jefferson’s palatial residence at Monticello, the house of freedom was built by the blood and toil of slaves.
31 thoughts on “The American Revolution: A Mistake?”
This piece is the definition of Canadian Anglo-nationalism!
Given that the Quebec Act was one of the “Intolerable Acts” that so got up the noses of the thirteen colonies I find funny that this is “the definition of Canadian Anglo-nationalism”.
The Loyalists had an argument and a good one. They didn’t trust the revolutionaries to establish a government superior to that found in Britain. In fact, nor did the drafters of the US Constitution, who did their best to imitate the British government and John Adams himself acknowledged it was the best in the world. Their only beef was with heritability which they hoped to replace with a “natural aristocracy” – like the Bush family? It is difficult not to see the revolution as driven by greed, first of the mob, then of the elite. The mob hated authority and taxes (nothing new there – only today the police are better at keeping them in line), and the elite saw an opportunity to take control of a massive territory with an enormous wealth of natural resources and very little population. If they played it right, they could end up as ambassadors, heads of state, and otherwise historical figures, while amassing the wealth and land that in Europe was reserved for aristocracy. Washington had 20,000 acres of land in Ohio when he was made president – Indian land that had been protected by British treaties. And for what did Washington earn his distinction? Leading an army of traitors into death and disease, stealing property from the Loyalists, only to establish a government that has never proven to offer more freedom than was found in Britain, and today offers considerably less.
There are today many rich Americans with a lot of power, and they are unlikely to see the downside of the Revolution, but there are many more poor, marginalized Americans who would have been better off under British rule. Fortunately, for the American oligarchy, the disenfranchised live in an information bubble and generally couldn’t point out Britain on a map – or any other country outside the US, except possibly Mexico, against which the US compared rather well.
I cannot today say when I first began to question the notion of the justice or inevitabilty of the american revolution. gradually I began to compare the canadians with my fellow u.s. citizens and more often than not the comparison seemed to me to favor the canadian style. although I admit that I personally know very few canadians and that there must be some who would fall short of my idealized image of them, and I personally know many fellow u.s. americans who are noble, just, intelligent, tolerant, etc., the real issue for me is that there does not seem to have been a very sound philosophical or moral basis for the american rebellion in the first place. I am gratified to discover through the medium of the internet that I am not the first or the brightest person to have begun to imagine that all of us (and the world) might have been better off if the rebellion had never happened.
I completely agree with your argument; however, next time have someone peer review your articles for grammatical errors. They were distracting.
Reblogged this on pastnow.
At some point in life we all make mistake that can not be fixed. Some people are able to learn from the errors of others, but some seem to continue committing the same mistake. Americans as well as Britain and others, were ambitiously blind to conquer more land and become superior, that it did not let them see clearly of their actions. Was slavery right? Of course not, and only because Britain ended slavery before Americans it does not leave out the fact that they still at some point had slaves. Was killing or pushing Native Indians out of their lands right? Of course not, and sadly at this point of life we can not correct the past. However as much as I agree with the article, I believe the revolution did help form this country to get as close as we could to freedom and equality we need in the world. Could things had been handle different in the past, I believe so yet I am glad Americans left the Empire. I rather have a vote on who is going to govern the country I live in, rather than having someone already chosen to govern just because of a blood line.
If you’re referring to today, the monarchy doesn’t govern and hasn’t for a long time. If you’re referring to revolutionary times, you’d have not had a vote I’m guessing as your username like mine indicates you’re a woman.
The system set up in the USA disenfranchised most people, and gave disproportionate power to a small select group. Then, as now, the cries of US America being the most free are hollow and myopic.
A deeper and even more insightful book on what he called “the Counter Revolution of 1776,” by Grald Horne covers this topic perfectly. Of course White slaveholders benefitted from the Revolution, since their Independence was sought to forestall the growing movement for Abolition in England and her empire
The British did “pay out” the slave owners”. Which sounds rather Lockian to me.
The real questions that need to be asked are, ‘Is Canadian independence a mistake?’ and ‘What can we do about it?’
Slavery wasn’t abolished in all parts of the British empire until 1843, when the British East India Company passed the Indian Slavery Act.
It ought also to be noted that the various states in the United States abolished (1) property requirements for voting and (2) restrictions on members of certain religions (like Jews and Catholics) voting and holding office long before Britain did.
In some ways Americans got the vote before Britain, but in others, the US didn’t get the full vote until 1965.
Apart from the question of right or wrong, better or worse, there is the question of “how.” It seems that the British would have had to fight and beat the southern slave owners to abolish slavery, and it’s not clear they would have been willing or able to do so. In part that depends on how effective the British would have been in slowing the western expansion of white settlement. Again, doing so might have necessitated being willing and able to fight and beat the northern and southern colonies.
It looks that the revolution was going to occur eventually, due to the diverging interests of the ruling classes in America and the ruling classes in Britain. Even if the revolution that began in 1775 had not occurred or had failed, America and Britain were destined for a violent separation. And with every passing year, the population and GDP of the American colonies was getting closer to that of Britain.
So the question of whether it would have been better if America had stayed part of the empire is talking about a world that could probably never have been.
There had been similar grievances caused by the establishment of the Dominion of New England a century earlier, which was shortly disestablished without a war. I see no reason why things could not have been settled again similarly. Was the dissolution of the Dominion of New England a lucky fluke? Was the problem that the war against the French had been so much costlier than that against the Dutch, or that France presented an ongoing problem that Holland didn’t?
It wasn’t that France presented an ongoing threat (though it did). It was that Britain had a significant debt once the war was over. It had to tax the colonies to pay it off. The Anglo-Dutch War was a much smaller affair than the Seven Years’ War.
Not only was the Seven Years’ War three years longer than the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, but the Dutch were far weaker than the French in the second half of the eighteenth century. Additionally, the Seven Years’ War was fought between many of the great powers of Europe (Prussia, Portugal, Sweden, Austria, Bavaria, Russia, Spain, not to mention the Mughal Empire in India) and was fought on five continents. It’s interesting to note that not only did the British war debt lead to the American Revolution, but the French war debt led to the French Revolution.
Of course we have a test case – Canada, the Parallel Universe, which is composed 3/4 of Americans who skipped the American Revolution and 1/4 of French who skipped the French one. So we can actually know what might have happened.
What a crock of nonsense. I guess because Heer is Canadian, calling him “un-American” makes no sense. But this whole notion among the left is idiocy. First of all, it is highly doubtful that the absence of a Revolution would have made abolition come earlier. Why did Britain abolish slavery in the 1830s and 1840s? Because the bulk of their slaves had left their Empire in 1776, that’s why. If the Revolution never happens then it’s a near certainty that either abolition in the Empire comes later, and quite probably again with violence.
Let’s also remember that what the people among the Left who make this argument really want, is for Americans to be ruled by a hereditary monarchy. Say what you will about my country and its deep imperfections, we don’t have Betty Saxe-Coburg on our money. We don’t have lords and ladies and earls and knights. No one is called “Sir”. It’s a wonderful thing. Canada is filled with the descendants of people who were willing to bend the knee to a bunch of English aristocrats. It’s a nation that took 206 years longer than the United States did to gain full independence and complete control of its own affairs. And that’s fine. It’s a wonderful country and I enjoy it every time I visit there. Canada is a great place and there’s much that Americans can take from it, good ideas and good examples to follow. But you can keep Queen Betty on your money and on the names of your buildings and in your loyalty oaths as “subjects”. We’ll elect our own leaders.
And really, let’s not pretend that the British Empire was a beacon of freedom and liberty. Let’s not forget that after the Empire freed its slaves, it spent the rest of the 19th Century putting its boot on the necks of brown people all over the globe. Was American slavery monstrously evil? Yep. Did it last for a generation longer than it did in the Empire? Yep. But we weren’t massacring Indians at Amritsar or massacring the Zulu nation. We at least contained our depredations within our own borders.
Someone in the comment thread above suggests that if Americans had remained in the Empire, the First World War would have ended a lot sooner. To me that’s a fine example of why our Revolution was a good thing. It was good that King George V and Herbert Asquith couldn’t drag us into a violent contest over something like freaking Belgium that we had no stake in whatsoever and no reason to care about.
Oh, and I forgot the Irish, who came here in their millions after their British colonial overlords deliberately let them starve to death, this being at almost the same time the British Empire, beacon of liberty, was freeing its slaves. Ask all the Irish who came here in the mid-19th century how they feel about the Revolution.