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.