American Revolution

Two Reflections on the American Revolution

I recapitulate why it's important that the American Revolution was not an ethno-nationalist secession movement, and address claims that history would have taken a better course had the Revolution been defeated or never happened.


The Declaration of Independence.

Today is July 4, Independence Day. In previous years, I used this opportunity to address two important aspects of the Revolutionary War that are sometimes neglected. Both issues remain relevant today.

In this 2017 piece (see also updated version here), I explained why it matters that the Declaration of Independence did not justify secession from the British Empire on the basis of ethnic nationalism, but rather based on universal principles of human rights, which the British government had violated:

[W]e too often forget a crucial way in which the principles of the Declaration of Independence contrast with those of virtually all modern independence movements. Unlike the latter, the Declaration did not assert that Americans have a right to independence because of their ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic distinctiveness. Instead, the Declaration justifies independence on the basis of universal human rights…..

One of the striking differences between the American Revolution and most modern independence movements is that the former was not based on ethnic or nationalistic justifications. Nowhere does the Declaration state that Americans have a right to independence because they are a distinct "people" or culture. They couldn't assert any such claim because the majority of the American population consisted of members of the same ethnic groups… as the majority of Britons. Rather, the justification for American independence was the need to escape oppression by the British government – the "repeated injuries and usurpations" enumerated in the text – and to establish a government that would more fully protect the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The very same rationale for independence could just as easily have been used to justify secession by, say, the City of London…. Indeed, the Declaration suggests that secession or revolution is justified "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends" [emphasis added]. The implication is that the case for independence is entirely distinct from any nationalistic or ethnic considerations….

The Declaration establishes a new nation based on universal principles of individual right rather than the supposed collective rights of a particular racial or ethnic group. Its new government could not justify its powers because it represents the interests of a specific cultural group. Rather, it must be judged by the same principles that the authors of the Declaration applied to the British government: the protection of the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," regardless of the racial, ethnic, or cultural background of those oppressed.

To be sure, the Declaration does refer to "one people" seeking "to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another." But in this context, the "people" does not refer to a culturally or ethnically distinct group. The Americans were not distinct, in that respect, from the people of Britain. The "people," in this case, is simply a group that voluntarily comes together to establish a new nation….

The principles of the Declaration are a sharp contrast to the dangerous ethnic nationalism and zero-sum identity politics that have gained ground on both the left and the right in recent years. If we want to "make America great again," we would do well to remember the universal principles that made it great in the first place.

As I noted elsewhere in the same piece, the revolutionaries themselves often failed to live up to the high principles they asserted, most notably in so far as many of them were slaveowners. But that doesn't mean the Declaration's principles were useless, even when it comes to the issue of slavery:

Despite our many deviations from them, it would be a mistake to assume that the Declaration's ideals were toothless. Even in their own time, the principles underlying the Declaration helped inspire the First Emancipation – the abolition of slavery in the northern states, which came about in the decades immediately following the Revolution. This was the first large-scale emancipation of slaves in modern history, and it helped ensure that the new nation would eventually have a majority of free states, which in turn helped ensure abolition in the South, as well.

The Declaration did not abolish slavery, and its high-minded words were, for decades, undercut by the hypocrisy of Jefferson and all too many others. But the ideals of the Declaration played an important role in slavery's eventual abolition.

That brings us to the topic I considered in   a post written on Independence Day last year: "The Case Against the Case Against the American Revolution." In that piece, I addressed arguments from both left and right suggesting that the world would be a better place if the Revolution had been defeated or had never occurred at all:

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 are 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…..:

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 by 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.

It's a weighty indictment we should take seriously. But in the rest of the post I explain why it is nonetheless mostly wrong. Despite the very real flaws of the revolutionaries and of the new nation they founded, the world is a better place thanks to their sacrifices.

Appropriate recognition of the achievements of the Revolution should not, however, blind us to the many ways in which we still fall short of the ideals it espoused. The present US government is guilty of many sins, including some that reminiscent of the ones that the Declaration condemned. Too often, it still fails to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and still fails to treat all persons equally, regardless of morally irrelevant characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and circumstances of birth.

Abraham Lincoln's 1857 statement on the meaning of Declaration of Independence remains appropriate today:

I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects…. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them…

They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.


NEXT: What the Declaration of Independence Said and Meant

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  1. Slavery on large plantations made economic sense in the American South. Once that excuse for slave holding evaporated with the independence of the US it still took the UK decades to first outlaw it in the home isles, where it had never made any sense at all, then later in the remaining colonies.
    Canada was granted limited home rule after the UK lost the US, and still had several independence movements anyway. If not for the demonstrated bad results of ignoring colonists’ needs there would have been a revolution somewhere.
    Canada treats native Americans better, but not where there was good agricultural land.

    1. The Colonists’ leaders favored slavery and enjoyed the privilege of raping their slaves. Something like 85 percent of the framers were slave rapists. In Britain, abolitionism was a much stronger force.

      I suspect what really happens if the British win is the slaveholders of the South try to revolt later. And note, Britain would have never coddled the slave rapists like we did, with gag rules and compromises to expand the territories controlled by the slave rapists. Slavery would have been sharply contained in a few Southern colonies.

      No person who counts the interests of black people can say the revolution was good and right.

      1. It was the pretty Irish girls who were raped.

        And Britain supported the Confederacy — to the point of having to pay $15.5 M in reparations for the CSS Alabama, and would have done a lot more if they’d thought the Confederacy had a chance of winning. They’d much rather have had the cotton go to England than to the mills in the North….

        And read Charles Dickens….

        1. It was the pretty Irish girls

          Equates indentured servitude with slaver, AND equates whiteness with prettiness.

          Very racist! You continue to amaze.

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      2. “No person who counts the interests of black people can say the revolution was good and right.”

        Ever hear of Rwanda? Or Somalia? Etc…

        And 150 years from now, they’ll be talking about our Black genocide known as Abortion. So be very careful about condemning people you have never met — and 85% raping slaves, that’s right up there with the Jewish Blood Libel….

        1. Before declaring a black genocide, consider the total impact of all forms of birth control in aggregate. Blacks use abortion at higher rates than other social groups only because of inadequate access to primary birth control methods, pill, implants, tubals, etc. Black birth rates still exceed that for most of the population. Whether that is by individual choice or persistent lack of access to birth control is unknown.

          1. Conception does not occur with the other birth control methods.

            1. Using pro-Life zealotry to defend slavery on July 4th is a bold move.

              1. It was studying the Abolitionist arguments that made me pro life….

          2. 1. Blacks use abortion at higher rates than other social groups only because of inadequate access to primary birth control methods, pill, implants, tubals, etc.

            2. Black birth rates still exceed that for most of the population. Whether that is by individual choice or persistent lack of access to birth control is unknown.

            Fascinating that point 1 can somehow be known while point 2 is admittedly unknown. Fascinating.

      3. Who bought the South’s cotton?? Duuuuuuuh.

        Follow-up query: how did the British treat the Indian and Egyptian cotton growers after the South’s ports were blockaded??

        1. The European powers treated Egypt poorly.

          Cotton prices ran up hugely, and the Europeans encouraged the Egyptian rulers, especially Ismail the Profligate, to borrow enormous sums against presumably endless revenues from cotton. When this ended badly France and Britain took control of the country, including the Suez Canal.

          Not that Ismail wasn’t to blame in any of this.

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    2. it still took the UK decades to first outlaw it in the home isles,

      Somersett’s Case was in 1772, four years *before* the US declaration of independence.

    3. “Canada treats native Americans better”

      Three words: War of 1812….

    4. Slavery made economic sense only for the aristocrats of a feudal society. It is more inefficient than free labor. It did not help the vast majority of whites.

      Anyone who thinks slavery makes economic sense is ignoring economic reality. Forced labor knows many many ways to work slowly and stupidly; ask any draftee, or any drunk cleaning up the side of the highway. Overseers are more overhead and can only catch the most inept slowdowns. Slave patrols are more overhead and cannot catch all escapees. Slaves are useless for any technical work; ask Nazis how well their slave labor worked, and how much sabotage they caught.

      1. Anyone who thinks slavery makes economic sense is ignoring economic reality.

        In the general sense that’s true, but when it comes to running a cotton plantation in the 19th century it does make sense. The field work is unpleasant, and you need a lot of workers, and they have to kept organized and in line. Paying market wages for workers would have made cotton production unprofitable for many of the plantations.

        Of course this supports your statement in the broad sense. For the South, having the economy rely on cotton produced with slave labor may not have been a sound long run proposition, as it no doubt hindered industrialization. But those in charge liked it, as they were the beneficiaries.

        1. Again, it only made sense for those cotton plantations because they were owned and run by the aristocracy of the South. Free labor would still have been more efficient, because free labor doesn’t need the intense supervision and guards of free labor. But free labor would have lessened the aristocrats’ influence and power. They preferred to be in power and relatively rich by keeping everyone else poor.

  2. This is why, when the subject of originalism comes up, my first question is why should we care about the opinions of people with values so radically different from our own.

    1. Because, if you are sufficiently skilled at exegesis, you can interpret the Sacred Texts to show that those people agreed with whatever you need them to agree with.

      1. Yes, I’m a lawyer so I can spin just about anything. It strikes me as far more honest, however, to just admit that their values are not our values and to make decisions accordingly.

        We do not take medical marching orders from George Washington’s physicians (who in all probability killed him). Why should we take our constitutional cues from his legal contemporaries?

        1. It has a limited role in helping us understand the meaning of terms (i.e., what was a suit at common law for the Seventh Amendment?), but no, in general, we shouldn’t be wedded to Madison’s or Jefferson’s views about proper government.

    2. “people with values so radically different from our own.”

      Not really — the enlightenment values are the same, it’s just whom we consider to be persons. A future generation may say the same about us because of all the babies we aborted. Or maybe that we ate animals.

      1. Except there were plenty of people at the time – even some slaveholders – who recognized that blacks were persons and slavery was monsterous.

        1. So possibly at least some of “their” values aren’t so radically different from our own?

          I always wonder how people can assume a single set of “our values” in a population of 340M…

        2. I wonder if those black slave masters and sellers in Africa also thought so.

          1. Bit of a stretch to blame them for America’s pretty unique chattel slavery horrorshow.

            1. “Bit of a stretch to blame them for America’s pretty unique chattel slavery horrorshow.”

              There would have been no slaves if other Africans hadn’t been selling them.

              1. You think all slaves brought over from Africa were traded for?

        3. And how exactly is that different from abortion?

          1. Other than you begging the question?

    3. This is why, when the subject of originalism comes up, my first question is why should we care about the opinions of people with values so radically different from our own.

      Then you misunderstand the concept of originalism. It is not about caring about their “opinions.” It is about caring about the rules that were codified. Of course, you can ask why we should care about those, either — but that is an attack on constitutionalism itself, not an attack on originalism.

      If we don’t care what, e.g., emoluments meant, then there’s no reason to care that the constitution restricts them in the first place.

  3. This is asinine and also fails to understand how much things changed between 1763 (when the French & Indian Wars ended) or even 1776 and 1789 (when the Constitution was ratified). That’s like saying Germany in 1933 (when Hitler was elected) was the same as Germany in 1948 (Berlin airlift).

    Let me also state that my family was on the other side of this war.

    First and foremost, as to slavery, neither cotton nor tobacco grows in England. Historians cite the Cotton Gin (1794) as making slavery profitable. (Of course you might want to read Charles Dickens before celebrating how much better things were in the industrialized cities of the 19th Century.) Second, before having Halcyon thoughts about how the British treated the Indians, look into how they wound up after the War of 1812. Third, the America we know today is a product of a Constitution written in 1787 and not the Committees of Public Safety that existed during the Revolution. (Look up the origin of the term “Lynching” — it isn’t what you think it is.) And fourth, we *were* ethnically different from Britain — there were so many Germans here that we almost made German our National Language until Ben Franklin pointed out that King George (from Hanover) spoke German, but was only marginally fluent in English.)

    The Revolution was a civil war along the fault lines we have today — it was between a merchant class that traded with the British and a populist/farmer class that didn’t. Illegal aliens came into the mix of sorts — British soldiers were permitted to work off-hours and as their food & housing was provided for them (3rd Amendment), they could work for far cheaper than Americans

    And then look into Daniel Shay’s of Pelham, MA and his rebellion. These were farmers loosing their land in foreclosure — so they shut down the courthouses by force of arms. They then attempted to seize the Federal arsenal in Springfield (MA) and damn near got it — would have but for a private militia hired by the Boston bankers.

    There’s a whole lot more in what is a semester-long course, but I’ll conclude that we were damn lucky NOT to have a parliamentary form of government on several occasions, two being the Presidency of Andrew (*not* Lyndon) Johnson and the “Know-Nothing” era — look into the latter and I trust you’ll agree that checks & balances are a very good thing — what happened was bad enough…

    1. The Revolution was a civil war along the fault lines we have today — it was between a merchant class that traded with the British and a populist/farmer class that didn’t.

      This ignores literally all of the Founders.

      Shay’s Rebellion shows what about the American Revolution?

      1. American War for Independence wasn’t a “revolution”…it was a return to the way things were when the British ignored the colonists. France had a revolution…Russia had a revolution…Mexico has had several revolutions even one where they attempted to abolish the Catholic Church!?!

        1. Oh, it was a revolution, just a revolution to conserve. Still presented a pretty radical departure from the status quo in the end.

      2. Read the correspondence between John & Abigail Adams. You might learn something….

        1. What would I learn, Ed? That the Founders were all humble farmers and not merchants?

          How are you so unmoored from facts so often and yet manage to function?

  4. Certainly, the Founders didn’t claim ethnic distinctiveness from Britain – in fact, they were indignant that they were being oppressed by fellow-Britons:

    “Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our *common kindred*, to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of *consanguinity*. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.” [emphasis added]

    1. I don’t think it was ethnic as much as cultural — Great Britain at the time itself had distinctly different ethnic groups (and languages).

  5. I’m more a Gettysburgh than a Declaration man, but it’s still a powerful statement about America, whether borne out by it’s contemporaries or not.

    That being said, look at the situation we have here on the VC. We have posts about how the Declaration is libertarian; how it’s exhorts people to stand up against the Marxist Mob.

    In the comments, we have slavery apologia and others essentializing slavery to swallow the text of the Declaration.

    I suppose it’s unsurprising sociologically for such a nationally mythic text to show more about commenters than our country. But then look at what we have here –
    Prof. Somin talking about global rights.
    Prof. Barnett talking about how the Declaration, properly analyzed, agrees with his libertarian vision for America, and that any interpretation of the Constitution that disagrees with him is illegitimate.
    Prof. Kopel sees an exhortation to light a candle against America’s encroaching Marxist, reactionary future.

    Happy Independence Day indeed.

    These second 2 weren’t as radical when I started reading the VC back in 2008. Add in Blackman, and you can see a trajectory in conservative philosophy that goes to some dark places.

    1. These second 2 weren’t as radical when I started reading the VC back in 2008.

      I understand why you say that, and I think it may be true. But I’m not sure. The overall VC trend, sure, but Randy? Apart from the sharp decline in his output, how much substantive difference is there on this blog between Randy c. 2008 and Randy c. 2020?

      I know my comparative ignorance of his social views back then let me believe his fringy legal ideas were merely the product of a principled if fanciful ideology. Subsequent exposure to his libs-owning Twitter feed stripped me of that innocence, at least contemporaneously. But without comparable access to earlier informal musings I’m not sure whether his views devolved so much along the way, or that social media just burdened me with a higher resolution window into his soul.

  6. Seems to me cherry picking a few differences between US practice and other colonial practice and then arguing that it would be better/worse for the US to have those features is an *incredibly* bad way to figure out if the revolution was good or bad. I mean we are essentially just telling ourselves a narrative by thinking about what seems plausible and even ignoring all the biases in that (esp that what happened always seems more plausible than what didn’t) it means you ignore unlikely outcomes with huge effects. Given we have nukes it’s the effects of those low probability high impact events which dominate.

    Indeed, the only slightly defensible way to approach this question imo is place yourself back in the 1770s and assume the only extra things you know are of a kind like: cars are possible, mass production is super efficient and try to evaluate if you feel the high bar of evidence for war has been met. That’s why I think it was probably a bad idea. Just don’t think the colonists really had it bad enough that war would have seemed like a good move.

    1. Boston had a “North End” gang and a “South End” gang, who met on the Boston Common on Sunday afternoons for a weekly brawl.
      Someone, memory is John Hancock, organized them to attack the British instead — they became the Patriots.

  7. The silliest argument is the one that claims the British abolished slavery in 1833.

    Oh, sure, they got rid of African slavery . . . and proceeded to import workers from India under “indenture contracts” to Caribbean plantations to replace them. One out of six died getting shipped from India to the Caribbean, and then one out of eight died each year on the plantations.

    This system was not abolished by the British until 1917, 52 years after both slavery and indentured servitude was abolished in the United States.

    1. When you put it like that, America is actually pretty swell!

    2. England were colonialist and awful all the way to 1960. You can be awful and racist in lots of ways, but not in one particular way.

      The particular point that America revolted partially to maintain their own status quo of a slave economy is not addressed by that; no one is trying to compare the morality of America to England, I don’t think.

      1. The point is not that the British were “colonialist and awful”. The point is that the British continued to use slavery to work Caribbean sugar plantations for decades after nominal abolition. The claim that slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833 because the law said it was abolished is exactly as hollow as the claim that Black Americans got the right to vote in 1870 because the Fifteenth Amendment said they could. The Indian indenture in Jamaica in 1875 was no more free than the Black man in Montgomery in 1930 had the franchise.

        1. DRM, indenture was certainly terrible with long hours, low pay, high mortality, and the likelihood that at the end of their five years they would be trapped with no way to return home and the threat of criminal vagrancy charges if they stayed without extending their term. Still I have to consider it a step above slavery, recruits had to appear in front of a magistrate in India and show they understood the terms of their contract and that their agreement was voluntary.
          How do you feel about the next step, the elimination of forced prison labor? I believe Britain and the Commonwealth are well ahead of the US there.

        2. Indentured servitude was not pleasant — then again, neither was life in general at the time — but it was nothing like chattel slavery.

  8. I don’t think any discussion of what history would have looked like without the Revolution makes sense without considering the effect of the Louisiana Purchase. Without the Revolution it doesn’t happen.

    Napoleon wasn’t going to sell Louisiana to Great Britain, after all. So would westward expansion have occurred? Would Spain and France have controlled huge parts of North America, leading to great conflicts among the three European powers?

    Who knows?

    1. Then again, without the American Revolution, Napoleon might not have been more than a moderately distinguished artillery officer in the army of the Bourbon monarchy.

      1. You’re going to have to run that one by me more slowly. Why do you think the American Revolution matters for anything outside of North America?

        1. Er, because it expanded into a global war between Britain on the one side and France (1778), Spain (1779), and the Netherlands (1780) on the other, complete with fighting in Europe, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. With consequences like the French racking up a massive war debt which required the reformation of French finances. Said reformation requiring that that Louis XVII call the Estates together, and that very calling up of the Estates being the precipitating event of the French Revolution.

          I mean, even if you ignore any ideological flow from the American to French Revolutions (which requires willful obtuseness, given, for example, that American Revolution veteran Lafayette wrote the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” in consultation with US Minister to France Thomas Jefferson), that alone should be sufficient to establish how the American Revolution mattered to things outside North America.

          1. If you think the French Revolution wouldn’t have happened without the American one, your American exceptionalism is even more exceptional than most Americans’.

    2. Yet Britain was able to deport the Acadians to Louisiana. Hmmm…

      1. …you think the Louisiana Purchase was a conspiracy or something?

  9. “He 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.”

    1. Non-spin version: “The King didn’t let us steal more land.”

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  12. Anyone who thinks that the British treated their native subjects better has never spoken to an Australian Aboriginal. Or for that matter to someone from Bangladesh who went through the entirely avoidable 1943 famine. Or to someone who was walking in the wrong direction at the wrong time and was therefor a member of the Mau Mau.

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