Once again this year, the capacity for zeal about the American Revolution
puzzles me. I’m shocked to see that for so long, among so many groups, for so many decades, with untold billions spent on fireworks and hot dogs, people continue to almost religiously worship the Revolution and those who supposedly made it. We treat it as one of the pinnacles of human success. Many go so far as to argue that the American Revolution is a punctuated departure from all of world history–a particular choice made by particular people who knew the risks and decided to chance failure for the freedoms to be gained. This is a common rendition of those who hold to the theory (or faith) of “American exceptionalism,” a mytho-historical view which places the United States in a messianic role with regard to the rest of the world. We have risked it all to avoid history’s traps and lead everyone else to God’s promised Paradise.
Once extricated from the mythos, though, it’s much easier to see how costly the Revolution really was—not only to the rank-and-file American public of the time–but to the world at large and to our understanding of it. Clearly our lead authors are not part of the mytho-historical scholarly space as such, and I had no problems with the lead essay until we get to the conclusions—I have no empirical training to speak of and no way to evaluate the study at hand. I take the findings at face value as one interesting example of studies on economic growth
. As they close, though, the authors insist upon revering the American Revolution despite its economic and human costs. I will not.
Back in college, I used to practice libertarian edge-lording by writing an annual Fourth of July post cataloging the problems with the American Revolution. I would usually begin with the obvious speculations–The British Empire was trending toward abolition
and could well have ended American slavery much earlier than 1865. American Indians could well have avoided much of the cruel fate forced upon them by the newly independent and especially rapacious Americans. I would also discuss things like the notion that in the United States, history itself has been broken and transformed by average, common people–that we have escaped from the feudalistic past and we can create history as we see fit. This is a significant problem in nationalist mythology that is still either overlooked, simply accepted, or understudied, though for a fuller discussion we will have to wait for further rounds of essays in the forum. My point as a Ron Paul kid was always that the civic religion is playing you for a fool–a happy, tax-paying, ritualistically-voting, law-abiding fool! Edgy-lordy, for sure…to my ever-lasting shame.
But more careful scholars than I was as an undergraduate have spilt tremendous ink on what Barbara Clark Smith’s book title labels The Freedoms We Lost
, (2010). There were far more costs associated with the American Revolution than a simple tally of lives lost, resources spent on the war effort, reduction in living standards during the conflict, the raw emotional burdens of war, and even the reduction in economic growth noted by our lead authors. Smith builds her book around clear examples of traditional freedoms enjoyed within the British imperial system that were phased out or sharply cut during the Revolution and its settlement in 1789. Her first lines are terribly important: “Colonial Americans were less free than we are, and in countless ways. Their political theories accepted lack of freedom as normal and often desirable.” She continues, “I would not be so foolish as to suggest that we should wax nostalgic about colonial times or yearn for the opportunity implied by white families’ access to ‘open’ or ‘free’ land, bought at the cost of dispossession of Native American peoples…Early America was no Golden Age.” Neither was a Golden Age granted by the institutions which flowed out of the Revolution.
Smith’s purpose, then, is “to suggest that there existed in colonial America elements of liberty, forms of participation in public affairs, that later generations would not experience.” The issue is not quite that pre-Revolutionary, pre-Constitution Americans were “less free than succeeding generations as differently free. Their understanding of liberty is not adequately measured by nineteenth-century ideas and institutions, nor by later centuries’ unalloyed celebration of the Revolution and its aftermath.” Put in conversation with our lead authors’ questioning of economic prosperity as a result of the Revolution, Smith’s key questions become all the more important in assessing the balance of the scales: “What happens if we view colonial Americans without being certain that the freedom they lacked was more important than the freedom they had? What if we suspend the certainty that being subject to the British crown was necessarily (in every way and for everyone) less than being a citizen of the U.S. state?”
What’s more–though this, too, will have to wait for a later response essay for a fuller elaboration–I would argue that many (if not most) of our dearest individual liberties were developed and either culturally or legally coded into American life during the 19th and 20th centuries. These freedoms did not simply pop into existence, either. They were fought for, struggled over, resisted by the relatively powerful, and won by the relatively powerless. They had little at all to do with the American Revolution or even the structures of government settled in 1789. I think neither the Revolution nor the Constitution produced a greater raw count of libertons, nor was either event or movement based on purely ideological concerns about abstract individual freedoms.
Smith’s narrative is particularly important as it revolves around the conflicting interests of what she calls “the first Patriot coalition” and the “second Patriot coalition.” The first
Patriots were those from below, as it were–Sugar and Stamp Act protesters and rebels, frontiersmen ignoring the Proclamation of 1763, sailors, working people and the like. The second
cohort of Patriots were the Sons of Liberty-types, the genteel mercantile interests, planters–like Washington
–statesmen in the colonies–like Washington–landed gentlemen…like Washington. Well, you get the point. The Revolution likely would not have been successful without the second Patriot coalition joining with the first against the British, but nonetheless the fundamental contradiction of interests involved guaranteed a contest over the deployment of power in the new system of government after the war’s conclusion. As it happened, the second Patriot coalition unquestionably won out during the Constitutional Convention and subsequent ratification votes. As the Beards long ago pointed out, the base personal interests of those who stocked ratification conventions largely guided the votes for and construction of the American charters. For a century or more now, we could well have stopped idealizing the Revolution and its political outcomes because for the average American of the day it was a case of “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”
Historian and political scientist Crane Brinton (The Anatomy of Revolution,
1938) put the American, French, and Russian revolutions in conversation with each other to discover their common causes, processes, and results. Much of what Brinton found in common were the causes of catastrophic debt, inflation, or expenses on the balance sheet. In other words, fiscal crises caused these revolutions rather than high-falutin' political or social ideals. For the British and the Americans in 1776 the fiscal cause was the long-standing war debt from the Seven Years War, and its variety of impacts on the American colonies. For the French, it was the absolutely crushing impact of Versailles’ excesses and taxes along with the steady loss of profitable colonies to the British. The French people starved as the Louies strolled their fancy gardens and gorged themselves while literally surrounded by crystal, mirrors, and gold. For the Russians, it was the catastrophe of World War One, the collapse of confidence in the Czar, and a complete inability of the state to fulfill its credit.
Believing that these revolutions happened and were successful thanks to the high ideas we have come to know them for is simply asking too much of actual people involved in actual events. It’s the stuff of movies, not reality. No one wants to see a movie about aristocrats angry over trade or debt disputes—that’s how The Phantom Menace starts, and we know how that turned out.
And for those just waiting to shout back “GEORGE WASHINGTON!,” keep in mind that we are talking about possibly the most wealthy private citizen in the entire world at the time. Perhaps, just maybe this famously un-ideological first President had something other than high-minded ideology at the forefront of his mind. Maybe the “sacrifices” of his soldiers’ lives did not exactly weigh on his conscience at Valley Forge like the Americanist cultists would like us to believe. Perhaps his sacrifice was positively ignoble. When you really dig in and dismiss the fog, the great planter Washington may not be that far from your bloodthirsty Jacobin or your genocidal Bolshevik.
Now, I also think I need to spend some time here introducing the classical liberal theory of class conflict into the conversation because it highlights at least some of the problems with all wars and all state-making. The theory (with deep roots in the intellectual history of liberalism) is that the use of power, of whatever sort it might be, by itself immediately splits individuals and–by their associations and intersections–groups into antagonistic classes aligned by their contest with those who initially deployed power. This can be very small in scale (conflicts within family units or two astronauts locked in a capsule together), ranging to medium-sized groups (think of high school social cliques or conflicts between departments in a corporation) and very large groups with subjects like white supremacy or imperialism at hand. From the deployment of economic power (think the Harvey Weinsteins of the world), cultural power (think “cancel culture” or DeSantis’ war on Disney), social power (think about the role of mega-churches or the left’s community organizing efforts), and of course political power (probably does not need to be explained)...Each use of one’s power or a group’s power to coerce another inevitably and invariably increases the overall amount of conflict in society: a division between the interests of those who can deploy and those who must respond.
And so, to my various interlocutors, I offer this challenge: Tell me in which ways the average person in what became the United States actually benefited from the Revolution. Materially, politically, culturally, socially, globally, or almost anything else. I’m genuinely curious to know how you square this circle without crediting other generations, the “framework” established in 1789, or the mystical influence of being freed from the British yoke. Instead, the Revolution simply looks to me like another early step in the Higgs Ratchet Effect
where government in the Americas simply continued to grow and grow. We switched around the chairs and changed up the music, but the Revolution was no noble sacrifice for the betterment of human liberty.
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