American Revolution

The Case Against the Case Against the American Revolution

Some on both left and right argue that the American Revolution was a mistake that ultimately caused more harm than good. Here's why they're wrong.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Washington Crossing the Delaware. Painting by Emmanuel Leutze (1851).

July 4 is almost over. But there is still time to  address claims that  history would have taken a better course had the American Revolution failed (or never started). In the United States, such arguments made mostly by people on the left. This 2015 Vox article by Dylan Matthews is an excellent example. But similar claims are also made by a few libertarians, such as my George Mason University colleague Bryan Caplan, and by some Canadian and British conservatives. Here are the main arguments typically advanced by modern critics of the Revolution (most elaborated at greater length at the links above):

1. British rule would have led to an earlier and less violent abolition of slavery. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, some thirty years before the United States, and it did not require a bloody civil war to do it.

2. A British-ruled America would have treated Native Americans better (as witness their apparently superior treatment in Canada).

3. A British America would have had a parliamentary form of government rather than separation of powers, which—among other advantages—would have led to a larger welfare and regulatory state. This latter point, of course, is usually made by left of center critics of the Revolution, not conservative and libertarian ones.

4. The history of Canada (and later Australia and New Zealand) shows that the British Empire was capable of gradually granting colonies increased autonomy and rights without the need for a bloody revolt.

5. The Revolutionary War caused enormous bloodshed. Some 25,000 Americans died (a larger percentage of the population than were lost in any of our other wars, besides the Civil War). To that figure, we should add numerous casualties suffered British and French troops, and by German mercenary soldiers hired by the British. The possible gains of the Revolution were not enough to justify this terrible loss of life.

This is a weighty critique that Americans should take seriously. We should not adopt a blindly celebratory attitude to our history, but should instead seek out the truth. Still, the critique falls short.

Here are my responses:

1. Far from retarding the abolition of slavery, the Revolution actually accelerated it. Its triumph gave a big boost to Enlightenment liberalism, which inspired the First Emancipation in the US (the abolition of slavery in the North that became the first large-scale emancipation of slaves in modern history), and boosted antislavery movements in Europe, as well.

2. Had the Revolution been defeated, Enlightenment liberal ideology would have been dealt a setback in Britain and France, too. That would have set back antislavery movements there, as well. It is no accident that many antislavery leaders in Europe were also sympathizers with the American Revolution. The Marquis de Lafayette was just one of the most famous examples of European liberals who actively backed both.

3. The West Indian slaveowner lobby in Parliament was strong enough to block abolition of slavery until 1833. Had Britain also been saddled with the much larger proslavery lobby of the American South, it would have taken far longer. Especially when you combine the impact of the larger slavery lobby with the force of point 2 above.

4. A defeat for the American Revolution would have set back other liberal causes too, not just antislavery. That includes, among other things, universal suffrage, freedom of speech, religious toleration, and increased rights for women. Each of these reforms (and others, too) was given new impetus by American Revolution, which inspired European liberals to imitate them.

Ideally, people should evaluate political ideas purely on the basis of logic and evidence. But, in reality, many are often attracted to a seeming winner. Military victory often increases the attractiveness of an ideology, and defeat reduces it. Think of how fascism's appeal plummeted after the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, and communism's appeal increased after the Bolshevik triumph in the Russian Civil War and Stalin's successes in World War II. The American Revolution similarly gave a boost to Enlightenment liberalism around the world. A British victory would have had the opposite effect. The impact would have been felt on both sides of the Atlantic.

5. The relatively better treatment of natives in Canada owed more to the lower number of settlers and the somewhat less desirable nature of the lands in question, than to any intrinsic superiority of British policy in that regard. The horrendous treatment of Australian aborigines underscores that the British could be just as brutal towards native populations as Americans often were. While I am no expert on this subject, recent historiography also paints a more negative picture of the nineteenth century Canadian government's treatment of Native Americans/First Nations. I  should emphasize that this critique of the British/Canadian record on forcible displacement of native peoples does not excuse what happened in the United States. The sad truth is that neither society has much to boast about when it comes to this issue.

6. Britain's generally benevolent treatment of Canada in the 19th century was in large part a product of lessons the British learned from the American Revolution (that oppression would be likely to lead to revolt). Moreover, they knew that a dissatisfied Canada was ripe for conquest by the US (which did in fact try to seize Canada twice).

7. It may actually be true that a parliamentary British North America would have a larger welfare/regulatory state than the US does. I see that as a negative, not a positive. Still, I can understand why many on the left take the opposite view. But it is also worth noting that Canada and the US actually score very close to each other on standard measures of economic liberty and government spending as a percentage of GDP (40.3% for Canada; just under 38% in the US). In recent years, Canada sometimes scores a bit higher (in the sense of being slightly more free market). And while separation of powers is not the ideal regime for all nations, I think it is often superior to parliamentary government, for reasons I summarized here.

8. Points 1-5 above (along with other benefits of the Revolution I do not have time and space for here) strongly suggest that the good accomplished was worth the admittedly terrible loss of life.

I should also acknowledge Jeff Stein's 2015 response to Dylan Matthews on Vox, which makes a number of good points related to those above.

Some conservatives occasionally make the argument that the failure of the American Revolution would have forestalled the French Revolution and the resulting massive bloodshed of the Napoleonic wars. We can also take this further and suggest that preventing the French Revolution might have also blocked the later rise of revolutionary socialism and the horrific atrocities of communism. Robert Sobel's classic 1971 alternate history novel For Want of a Nail develops a scenario somewhat like this.

It is difficult to evaluate such wide-ranging claims. But it seems to me unlikely that the absence of the French Revolution would have prevented a war comparable to the Napoleonic Wars from arising. The period from 1688 to 1783 saw numerous bloody wars between Britain and France, including three that resulted in massive pan-European conflicts (the War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the Spanish Succession, and the Seven Years War). Given this history, it is highly likely another such conflict would have occurred even absent the French Revolution. It is notable that the Napoleonic Wars dragged on for many years even after France abandoned most of the ideological pretensions of the Revolution.

As for the rise of socialism and communism, it likely would have occurred anyway, as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution and its associated intellectual and social changes. Indeed, a world with no American and French Revolutions might well have been one where socialism and reactionary conservatism and nationalism were the only major ideological alternatives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But, admittedly, we cannot totally exclude the possibility of a world dominated by more moderate forms of conservatism emerging from this scenario. In that event, modern society would have fallen short of the heights of achievement reached by liberal democracy, but it might also have avoided the depths of communist and Nazi totalitarianism.

Since we are talking about a really big counterfactual, it is entirely possible that some low-probability event would have happened to upset one or more of my conjectures above. But, overall, I believe the evidence suggests that the American Revolution did a lot more good than harm.

The revolutionaries were far from perfect, and often failed to live up to their own principles. But their triumph nonetheless did much to advance the cause of freedom—not just in America, but around the world.

Some historians argue that counterfactual reasoning of this sort is worthless. How can we possibly evaluate events that didn't happen? It is hard enough to understand those that did. But, over the last several decades, scholars such as Niall Ferguson and Philip Tetlock   have shown that careful counterfactual analysis can shed useful light on many aspects of the past. Among other things, the claim that Event X caused Event Y implies that Y would not have happened in the absence of X (or at least would not have happened on the same scale or to the same extent). To assess such causal claims, it is important to consider what might have transpired had X been prevented.

I consider the value of counterfactual history in greater detail in this article, which assesses a much more modest counterfactual scenario than the failure of the American Revolution.

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  1. If we’re talking counterfactuals, I’d actually raise the likelihood that if the American Revolution were somehow avoided (versus fought and suppressed over a lengthy war) then there would be a much higher likelihood of a second English Civil War in the 1830s as part of the movement that led to the reform act. There’d be much more resistance to reform, since that would (in this scenario) have meant enfranchising America with parliamentary votes just as it meant enfranchising, say, Manchester. After all if the American colonies never seceded you wouldn’t get “North American Canada” you’d get the American colonies seeing themselves as unfranchised Englishmen.

    With more resistance to reform, there’d be a higher likelihood that actual warfare would break out, only with the reformers allied to the colonists. That probably would have been more violent than the American Revolution and delayed the abolition of slavery.

    1. That seems unlikely. The Great Reform Acts didn’t enfranchise anyone outside of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

  2. The claim that however much freedom was gained was not worth 25,000 deaths works the other way too: Britain’s attempt to prevent independence was not worth 25,000 deaths, so why did they force the issue? Surely they bear half the blame for those 25,000 deaths. Or, to put it another way, presumably Britain could have prevented independence with more deaths. Would that have been worth it?

  3. Just as a narrow technical point the following claim isn’t true “Among other things, the claim that Event X caused Event Y implies that Y would not have happened in the absence of X (or at least would not have happened on the same scale or extent). ”

    To give something close to the standard example suppose my friend and I both chuck rocks at a nearby glass window and my rock hits the window first causing it to shatter. It’s surely true that my throw of the rock (event X) caused the window to shatter (event Y). Yet it’s also true that the window would be just as shattered even without my throw (my friends throw would have sufficed).

    1. That’s not a very good analogy. You left out rock Z, which was thrown after rock Y but arrived before rock Y, and you left out rock W, which was thrown before rock X but arrived after rock Y.

  4. More broadly, I don’t think your analysis is particularly compelling as an argument about counterfactuals. For instance, you seem to give an asymmetric treatment of good things that did happen with bad things that might not have happened.

    When you consider the Napoleonic wars you simply cite the fact that lots of wars happened in Europe at that time. Sure, and likely some war would have happened but the Napoleonic wars were particularly bad. In contrast when you consider the end of slavery in the northern colonies you argue that the particular events which brought it about wouldn’t have happened so you credit it as a win for the american revolution. You can’t have it both ways. Either we point to general trends and say they would have happened anyway or we count the failure of the particular preconditions from having happened as making that event less likely.

    More generally, I feel this kind of analysis on this scale is deeply subject to a bias toward considering those events that actually did happen. Why not consider that had the US not revolted those enlightenment ideas would have been given greater weight in the UK itself as the colonists pursued a campaign of persuasion with respect to England?

    1. The great thing about counterfactuals is there are an infinite number of them. If you don’t like one or even all that you hear, there are still an infinite number remaining to not like.

    2. The American revolution was not the cause of the French Revolution any more than it was the cause of the English Civil War in 1640. In fact the French Revolution had a lot more in common with the English Civil war, where a revolution was co-opted by a successful commander who then launched several wars using his revolutionary army for successive conquests. Napoleon’s career path is a lot more similar to Cromwell’s than Washington’s.

      France had several bloody revolts in the 17th and 18th century, so it’s not like the idea never occurred to them before. However the colonies and England in their successful revolutions had alternative centers of power in the colonial legislatures, and the English parliament to keep from spiraling into anarchy. Then when Napoleon did assume power his role model was Louis XIV and his wars of conquest in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and his annexation of the Spanish Monarchy to the Bourbons rather than any American influence.

  5. Regarding the treatment of Native Americans, it seems worth reminding everyone of the last grievance listed in the US Declaration of Independence. The Colonists were angry with the King because he had ” excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

  6. I used to fall for #4 until I realized – “hmm, I wonder *why* the British were so cautious not to oppress the Canadians and other colonists in their remaining empire?” And that went back to the lessons of the American Revolution.

    So for any liberal institutions the Canadians have, you’re welcome.

    1. Something else to consider is that Ontario was settled by a fairly large number of Loyalists leaving what had become the United States. If not for the success of the Revolution and the emigration of those Loyalists, would not Ontario have been settled by pioneers from the back country of Pennsylvania and upstate New York? Canada itself would be a different country now had it not been for the American Revolution.

      1. United Empire Loyalists’ home page:

        http://www.uelac.org/

  7. My personal contrarian stance is that the American “Revolution” wasn’t really a revolution. And, that’s why it was so successful!

    We had our own governing institutions already in place, and were largely independent. Then King George decided to reassert lost control. Our “revolution” was, as a practical matter, not overthrowing OUR existing government, but rather defending it against outside attack.

    That’s why it was more successful than most “revolutions”: We didn’t have to invent a new government in the middle of a war, not really. Just fill in a few gaps. Most genuine revolutions go bad because the middle of a war is the worst possible time to be putting together a government.

    Also, in a libertarian site, the 4th should be an occasion for examining just how easily you could put together a similar list of abuses today, starting with unqualified immunity.

    1. That is correct.

      With respect to the abolition of slavery in England it had to do with their sugar producing colonies losing status to Cuba and Brazil. Guess which two countries in the Western Hemisphere had slavery the longest? Cuba and Brazil.

    2. Yes indeed. In an important sense, it wasn’t a “revolution” at all, because the Americans weren’t trying to depose King George; they just wanted to be out from under his rule.

      War for Independence conveys the significance better than Revolutionary War.

  8. I agree with your (and Ferguson’s) point about counterfactuals, but I’d modify it thusly: “Among other things, the claim that Event X caused Event Y implies that Y would not have happened in the absence of X (or at least would not have happened on the same scale or extent or would have been less likely to happen).”

  9. My beef with the American Revolution isn’t its effects or results (again, I agree with most of your points, except point #5*), it’s more that I don’t believe the issues that supporters of the Revolution cited were sufficient to justify war/revolution. I also have a strong dislike for the way loyalists were treated in the American colonies. My point of view is mostly anachronistic, and it ignores the value systems of the time, but even so, I don’t think the Revolution is something to celebrate. Even so, I’m lucky to have had the day off (even though a lot of people haven’t).

    *I think British policy in North America ca. 1776 was on balance more willing to respect the rights of American Indians west of the Appalachians than US policy turned out to be. It’s quite possible, maybe even likely, that British policy would have evolved to be just as bad, or worse, but the view from 1776 would have suggested the Americans were in the wrong.

  10. I’m not big on counterfactuals, but here is one that seems pretty likely.

    No revolution, no Louisiana Purchase, no expansion beyond the Mississippi. What would have followed instead I leave to others.

    1. Who needs the Purchase to expand beyond the Mississippi? British victory in war works just as well, and the British are stronger with the whole of British North America in the late 18th and early 19th than with most of it sitting out as a neutral.

    2. Britain had already used military force to seize Canada from the French, New Netherlands from the Dutch, Jamaica from the Spanish, and excluded the French from India.

      The British and their colonies would surely have siezed Louisiana from the French if the revolution had never happened.

      1. Yup, Kazinsky, it wouldn’t be a counter-factual if you didn’t turn around 180 degrees the fact that the French beat the British during the American Revolution—very much to the advantage of the Americans. You are so counter-factually correct: if the British had not lost, they would have won.

      2. Of course we don’t know whether the British could have taken that territory by force, but it would be significantly different task than taking Canada, where it involved taking Quebec City and Montreal, after which the French surrendered.

        The Louisiana Territory did not have such concentrations, whose control ensured victory.

    3. You’re assuming that the Westminter government could control back country settlers and enforce those borders.

  11. I think one has to view the American and French Revoultions as very different ones. To try to be concise, the American Revolution was and “Enlightenment” revolution which fundamental philosophy derived from Locke and the like. Whereas the French revolution was a “Romanitc” revolution deriving more from Rousseau. Each had very different view of religion (which in those days meant Christianity in its various forms).

  12. Good stuff Ilya!
    You would know this more than I, so I have a question for you regarding pre-revolution federated governing. Do we know who the colonies turned to here, within the US, in order to organize an inter-colonial response to England? I know G. Washington was seen as a military leader, but are there other, perhaps non-military leaders, who were turned to when more than one colony was attacked by the British? I feel that King George’s military response to events in Massachusetts and other colonies resulted in the creation of the federal level of governing, which in turn was kept after the Revolutionary War.

    I’m also thinking that inter-colonial businessmen, (whoever they could be), were turned to for leadership in coordinating inter-colonial responses to the British. A businessman who doesn’t do business outside his own colony, wouldn’t have a network to reach out to another colony – consequently, I’m thinking that businessmen that do business between colonies became the source of Revolutionary War leadership.

    I’m unfamiliar with Colonial-era political leadership capable of uniting the Colonies, that was needed during that crisis.

    1. Pre-revolutionary America did a lot of ad-hoc organizing, with an eye to exploiting particular British policy mistakes which aroused similar antipathies across the colonies. The First Continental Congress was a culmination of that process.

      If you want to embody your points in a non-military leader with cross-colonial influence (not to mention international influence), then Ben Franklin will do.

  13. One has to wonder, would continued British rule have stunted the development of the US into an industrial powerhouse?
    This would have had a negative effect on the outcome of two World Wars, no Lend Lease and no massive material support of the war effort.

  14. It is pure-quill dialectal materialism to believe that Marxist revolutionary socialism would have emerged in its latter 19th Century form from the raw conditions of the Industrial Revolution without the massive social and cultural change caused by the Revolutions of 1848. And it should be clear even to casual inspection that the Revolutions of 1848 would not have had remotely the same content without the ideas spread by the French Revolution and, in their attenuated form, by Napoleon at musket-point.

    So, if you hold European liberalism was not driven purely by dialectical materialism, that its course was substantially changed by the success of the American Revolution, the only coherent conclusion is that socialism and communism would have been substantially different in a world where the American Revolution failed or never happened.

  15. […] Ilya Somin: The Case Against the Case Against the American Revolution: Some on both left and right argue that th… […]

  16. If the American Revolution was the creche of 19th century liberal causes then the lesson seems to have been forgotten towards the end of that period, leading to just over a century of “taxation without representation” of the citizens of Guam and Puerto Rico.

    1. “just over” => “well over”, we’re at the 120 year point.

  17. German mercenary soldiers hired by the British is common usage but not precisely correct. The troops were George’s household troops; a carryover of his position as hereditary ruler of Hesse. The Hesse parliament allowed they were George’s to command but refused to fund service not in service to Hesse. Hence paid by the UK. That is the soldiers were serving their king not for money. For a counter factual make Victoria male and so the German province continues under English rule.

    As the common saying goes, when physicians were bleeding George Washington to death, lawyers were writing the Constitution. One major change with a counterfactual is that variations on Caesar, as Czar and Kaiser, might have continued instead of President becoming a common and preferred term for Chief Executive.

    1. Is it accurate to say that Hesse was under “English” rule, so that Hesse was basically an arm of England? (I suspect the answer is no, and that there very well might have been a separation between the UK and Hesse. But I admit I know almost nothing about it, and you you might know more.)

    2. his position as hereditary ruler of Hesse.

      At the time in question George was King of Great Britain, King of Ireland, pretender King of France (i.e. he maintained the fiction of a claim to the French throne), and Duke and Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg (a.k.a. Elector of Hanover). To my knowledge he didn’t hold titles in Hesse but some of his relatives did, and several German margraves had made a business of renting out their military to British service. Over half of the Revolutionary War contingent came from Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau, about one-seventh from Brunswick-Lüneburg, and the rest from some other states. Since most of them were Hessians that stuck as a collective name for them all.

  18. An achievement of the practice of counter-factual speculation is its power to discount to zero unique intellectual accomplishments made possible by the practice of history. Academic history, among other things, insists on minimal unproved speculation about causes, and corresponding conservatism about announcing effects. That is a tighter intellectual constraint than some other disciplines impose, and a uniquely valuable one. It opens a path to wisdom not commonly duplicated by other practices, at least among the humanities.

    Without that route, and insistence on following it, historical reasoning would be replaced—as it typically is replaced when non-historians get involved—with present-minded fantasies about the past. All good, for those who chafe at hindrances from reminders that there really is a knowable, factual past, which had nothing to do with the present. All bad, if you suppose intellectual constraint is a more practical route to wisdom than intellectual unconstraint.

  19. The planter class in the South was never going to relinquish their tyrannical power over their slaves and their states. There would have been a war, bloody and vicious, in 1833.
    One difference is that the British might have finished the job on Reconstruction.

    1. The British bought off the plantation owners in Barbados, Jamaica and elsewhere – see https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs//
      In today’s $ it was quite a bit of money. The “freed” slaves remained essential as chattel to the plantations for several years before becoming entirely free.

      1. Plantation owners on an island had the advantage that their labor force could not simply walk away, even if they were “free”. The freed slaves could not pay for passage from those islands and still had to work for a living, and the vast majority of the jobs were the same as they had been doing as slaves. Freeing slaves on the American mainland was far more disruptive, even if it had come by a decree from London rather than by an invading army.

        I also consider it doubtful that the British reform movement of the 1830’s would have succeeded without the eample of the USA.

  20. regarding your point 2, Professor. if anything, I’d think that you understate the point. claiming that the experience of Canadian native peoples demonstrates that British temperament and policy toward aboriginals is superior to American ignores hundreds of years of worldwide British Imperial policy and attitudes in that regard.

  21. I don’t accept the undiscussed assumption that only two options existed. A non-violent revolt would have been much, much better than the violent one or no revolt. But political ignorance prevented that. However, there would have been more support if it had happened. Many Americans who had strong ties to the Homeland would have supported non-violent resistance with specific goals. So would have Brits in parliament. The British Empire was too spread out to enforce their laws. Criminal activity would have achieved what politics couldn’t. That would have established a healthy disrespect for the law & chaos we got post “victory”. I’m thinking of the Whiskey Tax Rebellion with it’s tyranny.

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