Liberty Matters

Was the American Revolution a Real Revolution?

When American revolutionaries signed the Declaration of Independence, they knew that a war with the world’s greatest military power would follow, and they also knew that the new American nation would face serious economic hardships in the years ahead whether they won or lost. More: if they lost, the leaders of the Independence movement faced death by hanging. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” And yet, they went ahead and did it anyway. 
The obvious question is, why?
Once we account for the disruption to the American economy caused by the war and by Britain’s various attempts to punish the Americans economically in the years afterward, the evidence seems clear that the long-term economic effects of the Revolution were, on net, positive. And with every passing decade after 1790, the American economy continued to grow at an astonishing pace, despite a quasi-war with France and a second war with Great Britain during the years of the early republic. 
Again, the obvious question is, why?
These two “why” questions go to the heart of what the Revolution was about. How we answer them makes all the difference. To address these questions, we must find some way to access the revolutionaries’ intentions: we must find a way to get inside the minds and motives of those who fought for the Revolution and who later designed the political system in which the American economy would function. 
We can start to answer these questions by reading the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787. The Declaration gives us some sense of how and why American Patriots committed everything they had to the revolutionary cause (see America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It), and the Constitution tells us how and why the framers designed and implemented what I have elsewhere called a laissez-faire constitution that provided a political framework for a free-market economy (On America’s laissez-faire constitution, see here, here, and here). 
This is what I call doing history from the inside out, i.e., starting with the actors of history and trying to understand their ideas and motives as a way of understanding their actions. (I call this approach the “new moral history” in the Introduction to America’s Revolutionary Mind, which is my attempt to sketch a classical-liberal approach to the study of history.)
There are, of course, other approaches to doing history. One is the neo-Marxist approach favored by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project. This anachronistic approach to doing history studies past actors and events from the outside in, i.e., by superimposing on the past the assumptions, concerns, and prejudices of the present. This “presentist” approach is taken by one of the participants in this forum, who assumes he knows the motives, ideas, and actions of past actors better than they did.
Anthony Comenga’s response to the Geloso-Noël essay oozes with contempt, even ressentiment, for the American Revolution and for those twenty-first century Americans who treat the founding period as though it were somehow important, unique, or special. He’s “puzzled” and “shocked” by those who hold what he calls the “mytho-historical” view of the Revolution that speaks of “American exceptionalism.” He revels in debunking the “national mythology” of the Revolution. As with Howard Zinn and Nikole Hannah-Jones, he seems not to see any good in the American Revolution. Then, in a moment of unbuttoned frankness, Mr. Comegna asserts that George Washington “may not be that far from your bloodthirsty Jacobin or your genocidal Bolshevik.” 
Mr. Comegna’s contempt for the American Revolution and its revolutionaries begins with a conceit—a fatal conceit that assumes he knows the motives, ideas, and actions of American revolutionaries better than they did. He mocks the revolutionary generation by claiming that the American Revolution “was no noble sacrifice for the betterment of humanity.” Strictly speaking, the revolutionary generation did not view their actions as a “sacrifice for the betterment of humanity,” but they did think they were launching a novus ordo seclorum based on certain philosophic principles. Alexander Hamilton’s claim in the first essay of The Federalist is only the best-known statement of how the founders’ understood their project: 
 “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” 
This is how the founding generation understood the meaning of their founding act; it’s how many European (including English) intellectuals at the time saw what they were doing; and it’s how subsequent generations of Americans saw the actions of the founders. Remarkably, though, Mr. Comenga knows the founders’ motives better than they did. How he knows this is unclear.
I conclude with one example of how subsequent generations of Americans understood the founders' founding act. Consider the Loco-Focos, who were principled defenders of the founders’ principles and institutions during the 1830s and 1840s. The Loco-Focos viewed themselves as the true heirs to the founding generation. They wanted to return to the original constitutional regime ratified in 1788, or at least the Jeffersonian version. According to William Leggett, the goal of the Loco-Focos was to restore the founders’ constitution, which captured “the noble and just sentiment of Jefferson, that the sum of a good government is to restrain men from injuring one another; to leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement; and not to take from the mouth of labour the bread it has earned.”[1] In 1834, New York City’s Loco-Foco newspaper, the Evening Post, declared its hope that the United States was “destined to prove to mankind the truth of the saying, that the world is governed too much, and to prove it by her own successful experiment in throwing off the clogs and fetters with which craft and cunning have ever contrived to bind the mass of men.”[2]
I may be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure the Loco-Focos did not think the founders were genocidal maniacs. I stand with the Loco-Focos.
[1] William Leggett, “Morals of Legislation,” in Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy, (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1984), 54-55.
[2] William Leggett, “The Monopoly of the Banking System,” in Democratick Editorials, 81.