Liberty Matters

The American Revolution and Human Flourishing

Once again, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank the initial authors, Geloso and Noël, for writing a thought-provoking initial article that the rest of us have been able to engage with. Having said that, I share C. Bradley Thompson’s preference for “a reality-based approach to historical questions.” I too am a contextualist who believes that we must study historical events by paying particular attention to their place and time, and to the individuals that made history happen. Thompson rightfully points out the limits and problems with Geloso and Noël’s counterfactual.
After reading all the essays, it seems clear to me that my co-contributors and I agree that market-liberalism is what leads to economic growth. To the extent that the American Revolution set the United States on a path toward market liberalism, it has contributed toward human flourishing. I imagine that even Anthony Comegna, despite his bemusement at the “zeal for the American Revolution” would agree that the governments established in the various state constitutions and the federal government created in Philadelphia in 1787 promoted human initiative. As Thompson explains, “Relative to all governments hitherto, these new American governments were dramatically limited in their purpose and powers, which means they created large spheres of liberty…” As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey puts it, common people had to be given the opportunity to have a go. 
I’m a big believer in McCloskey’s argument that innovation is the key to economic growth and human flourishing and that liberalism unleashed that innovation.[1] I think my co-contributors would agree, at least in general, with this assessment. As Samuel Gregg has demonstrated, the American Revolution led to the creation of an institutional framework (embodied in the state and federal constitutions) that allowed people to have a go and be inventive. As Gregg explains, “Indeed, a spirit of entrepreneurship swept the country after the Constitution’s ratification, dwarfing that which existed in colonial America.” Gregg continues to show that following the 1790s, laws that protected intellectual property and clarified bankruptcy procedures encouraged innovation and initiative in the young republic. It is unclear, or perhaps unlikely, that these changes would have taken place without the American Revolution. 
Yes, market liberalism and the economic benefits it brought began in the Netherlands and Great Britain. The American colonies benefited from this tradition of liberty and a heavy dose of salutary neglect. The United States inherited market liberalism and bourgeois dignity from England, and they went on to magnify it. 
Indeed, as the American Republic matured, the institutional framework established in the wake of the Revolution enabled the American people to earn a reputation for their “practical” inventiveness. In addition to improvements in housing and infrastructure, America was filled with inventors: Samuel Morse created the telegraph system; Charles Goodyear developed vulcanized rubber, and Elias Howe invented the modern sewing machine. American economic growth surpassed Britain’s during the Second Industrial Revolution and by the turn of the 20th century the United States was on its way to becoming the preeminent economic power in the world. This was not a product of mere materialism. It was a product of ideas and an institutional framework that channeled individual initiative and entrepreneurial activity into activities that contributed to American flourishing.[2] 
While the United States undoubtedly did not live up to the high ideals of the American Revolution (as represented in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and while the country has committed atrocities and made significant mistakes, I would challenge Comegna to name another country that has done a better job of promoting the ideals of market liberalism. As a historian, it seems odd to claim that the Revolution was not “a departure from world history” – it absolutely was a departure. The American Revolution was the first successful liberal revolution and its success helped to encourage the spread of liberalism across Europe in the 19th century. That is to say nothing of the role that the United States played in the 20th century of safeguarding liberalism against the forces of authoritarianism as represented by fascists and communists. 
It seems odd to diminish the importance of America’s Founding documents and their positive effects on liberty across the globe. After all, anytime there is a revolution in another country, who do they quote? Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Further, whose flag do the crowds yearning for freedom and self-governance wave? The American flag. The reality is that ideas do matter in the course of history. The American Revolution was justified through radical Enlightenment notions of the individual liberty, dignity, and equality. Its success led to a flurry of constitution making in the new states and eventually a federal constitution that went well beyond the British model in promoting market liberalism, which in turn led to human flourishing. The world is better for the success of the American Revolution and especially for the triumph of market liberalism. 
[1] Deirdre McCloskey has laid out this argument painstakingly in three volumes: The Bourgeois Virtues (2006), Bourgeois Dignity (2010), and Bourgeois Equality (2016). She and Art Carden have also published a shorter and more accessible version in Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich (2022). 
[2] This line of thinking was inspired by William Baumol’s article “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive” Journal of Political Economy, 1990.