Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Was the American Revolution a Mistake?

I'm seeing lots of essays and posts this July 4 arguing that the American Revolution was a mistake. Here's a fairly typical version of the argument from Dylan Mathews:
This July 4, let's not mince words: American independence in 1776 was a monumental mistake. We should be mourning the fact that we left the United Kingdom, not cheering it.

Of course, evaluating the wisdom of the American Revolution means dealing with counterfactuals. As any historian would tell you, this is a messy business. We obviously can't be entirely sure how America would have fared if it had stayed in the British Empire longer, perhaps gaining independence a century or so later, along with Canada.

But I'm reasonably confident a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would've been abolished earlier, American Indians would've faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse.
I have been asking myself this same question for twenty years, mainly because of slavery and the Civil War. In 1843 the British Empire abolished slavery with minimal violence, which seems like a shining star of an alternative outcome compared to what we endured in the United States. After years of turning this over, I am not convinced that staying in the Empire would have solved this problem. I think there is no guarantee that Britain would have succeeded in freeing the slaves of Mississippi and Alabama with anything like the easy success they encountered in Jamaica and Barbados. In the Caribbean, whites were a tiny minority absolutely dependent on the British crown to keep the slaves down; once the support of the empire was withdrawn, they had no alternative but to accept manumission. Southerners not only believed they could keep their slaves down without British help, they had proved quite equal to the task for decades. If the decree had come down from London to free the slaves, they would instantly have rebelled, and the outcome would have been a bloody disaster. The British had been unable to conquer North America in 1776 when it had a fraction of the population and wealth it commanded in 1843, so I suspect the slaveholders would have won their revolution. As to what the North would have done, who knows?

I think the assertion that the British Empire would have been better to the Indians is just wrong. The British were fairly decent to the Indians in Canada because by 1800 the Canadian Indians didn't have any land that white people wanted. By contrast the "civilized tribes" of the American southeast controlled large territories with millions of acres of fertile land. Neither the British Empire nor any other power on earth could have kept white settlers from taking it.

As for the assertion that Parliamentary systems are better than the American mishmash, maybe so, but so far very few Parliaments have lasted as long or endured through as much as the American Republic has.

So I do not believe that staying in the empire would have necessarily prevented the horrors of the Civil War or the ethnic cleansing of the eastern Indians. But that is just the start of my criticism. There is a much more important problem with all of these arguments, which is that they completely miss the philosophical issues that were at issue in the Revolution. The Revolution was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. It was founded on the rejection of old ideas about humanity and god, and especially on the rejection of inherited hierarchies in state or church. People like Dylan Mathews seem not to understand that they are attacking the Revolution using criteria that did not exist until the Revolution established them: human rights, equality, government by elected representatives.

When he is complaining about American treatment of Indians, Mathews makes a telling mistake. He quotes historian Ethan Schnmidt as saying.
The British government remained willing to conceive of Native Americans as subjects of the crown, similar to colonists. American colonists … refused to see Indians as fellow subjects.
Which is true. But the radical idea was not that white people and Indians could be subjects in the same way; there had been multi-ethnic empires for three thousand years. The radical idea was that a person should not be a subject at all, but a citizen. The British elite was indeed willing to treat Indians in much the same way they treated white colonists, because they viewed the whole lot as troublesome serfs. The idea that either an Indian or a Massachusetts farmer was the equal of a Duke never entered their wildest dreams. The American Revolution was about demanding that equality in theory, and about building a system that could work toward making it real in practice.

Of course the American revolutionaries did not originate these ideas. Europeans had been fighting over them for decades, and the Revolution drew strength from a strong party of English and Scots who also believed in representative government and equal rights. But until 1776 the opposition had defended aristocracy partly on the basis that democracy had never been shown to work. The American example remained crucial for a century: after the French Revolution collapsed into tyranny, bloodshed, and military dictatorship, all the conservatives said, "we told you so." But their opponents could and did point to the United States as a place where democracy worked. When Lincoln called the United States "the last, best hope of earth" he received nods and thanks from radicals around the world. It is true that Britain and Scandinavia continued to evolve toward democracy and human rights throughout the nineteenth century, so that by its end they were farther along that road than America was. But nobody in 1776 knew that would happen, and indeed there is no reason to suppose it was inevitable. The American Revolution was part of the struggle for human freedom and equality, and it success drove those ideals forward. I used to think the triumph of modern politics was inevitable, but now I am not sure. After all, aristocracy worked pretty well for centuries.

The American Revolution was a radical experiment. Like all such experiments, it was not wholly successful. It has taken a long, long time to come close to the promise of our founding vision. But that, you know, is how history works: nothing changes all at once. It may be true that equality for white Americans was for a century or two worse for both Indians and blacks than aristocracy would have been. I have written here several times about the great difficulty humans have had making democracy work in multi-ethnic societies. But just the creation of a mono-ethnic, all-male democracy was an astonishing achievement, one that most of Europe's elite considered impossible.

Criticism of the Revolution as not sufficiently democratic and not sufficiently devoted to human rights are a sign of its success. We are all children of the Enlightenment, and we believe what George Washington and Benjamin Franklin believed. Dylan Mathews believes in those things so strongly that he cannot even imagine that they were once opposed by other beliefs; all he can see is that the early American Republic fell far short of its own ideals. He should learn something about history, so he could understand how strange and radical it was to see farmers and shopkeepers rising up to drive out the paid soldiers of their king so that they might replace him with a Constitution.


Abraham Lincoln, speaking on July 4, 1858, made the connection between the Revolutionary doctrine of equality and the eventual freedom of America's slaves:
Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge [Senator Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book in which we find it and tear it out!


G. Verloren said...

"Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans."

- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

David said...

Truly, the essays John is talking about sound otiose and half-baked. Their authors seem to ignore the key fact that these issues that they care about--Indian removal, curbing slavery, etc.--were, in both Britain and America, in every case, subjects of political combat. Sometimes the forces they (and I) identify with won, and sometimes they lost. Both abolition in Britain and Indian Removal in the US were close-run fights. All those compromises the early republic made with slavery were hard-fought. Not good enough, the authors might say--and the abolitionists agreed, which is why they kept at it.

To put it another way, the essayists seem to be imagining that they could escape certain (insert: Trumpish) forces if only we hadn't left the Empire. But racism, xenophobia, and consciously lower-class loutism thrive in British culture just as they do in American--and just as the impulses opposed to these things also thrive. Being British is no escape.

On the other hand, it simply isn't true that criteria like human rights and elected representatives "did not exist until the Revolution established them." Everything the American Revolution stood for had strong European precedents, some of them centuries old--including Leveller anti-snobbism and the idea of not having kings. As Garry Wills has shown, Jefferson got the famous ideas in the Declaration's preamble from his close reading of Scottish Enlightenment works. John himself admits the precedents--so why claim the criteria "didn't exist" before the Revolution? In any case, the point is not of course to criticize the Revolution for lack of originality--the familiarity of its ideas helped make it successful, including with significant portions of the British public and the House of Commons--but to caution against moderns trying to praise it by claiming an undue originality for it.

As for Lincoln, well, some of us would say that one of the greatest things about the American Revolution was that it made Abraham Lincoln possible.