Was the Revolution a Mistake?

Monday July 4 is Independence Day in America.  I came across an interesting (heretical) point of view:  3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake.  Dylan Matthews argues that

  1. “the British Empire, in all likelihood, would have abolished slavery earlier than the US did, and with less bloodshed.”
  2. “Independence was bad for Native Americans”, and
  3. “America would have a better system of government if we’d stuck with Britain”

I think Matthews has a strong case for the first 2 items.  As he states,

Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there, too, in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.

It would have saved a monstrously awful Civil War, the deadliest war in American history.

The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America’s white male minority. For the vast majority of the country — its women, slaves, American Indians — the difference between disenfranchisement in an independent America and disenfranchisement in a British-controlled colonial America was negligible. If anything, the latter would’ve been preferable, since at least women and minorities wouldn’t be singled out for disenfranchisement. From the vantage point of most of the country, who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?

If George Washington was executed as a traitor, how different would America be now?

In 1775, after the war had begun in Massachusetts, the Earl of Dunmore, then governor of Virginia, offered the slaves of rebels freedom if they came and fought for the British cause. Eric Herschthal, a PhD student in history at Columbia, notes that the proclamation united white Virginians behind the rebel effort. He quotes Philip Fithian, who was traveling through Virginia when the proclamation was made, saying, “The Inhabitants of this Colony are deeply alarmed at this infernal Scheme. It seems to quicken all in Revolution to overpower him at any Risk.” Anger at Dunmore’s emancipation ran so deep that Thomas Jefferson included it as a grievance in a draft of the Declaration of Independence. That’s right: the declaration could’ve included “they’re conscripting our slaves” as a reason for independence.

For white slaveholders in the South, Simon Schama writes in Rough Crossings, his history of black loyalism during the Revolution, the war was “a revolution, first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery.”

Slaves also understood that their odds of liberation were better under British rule than independence. Over the course of the war, about 100,000 African slaves escaped, died, or were killed, and tens of thousands enlisted in the British army, far more than joined the rebels. “Black Americans’ quest for liberty was mostly tied to fighting for the British — the side in the War for Independence that offered them freedom,” historian Gary Nash writes in The Forgotten Fifth, his history of African Americans in the revolution. At the end of the war, thousands who helped the British were evacuated to freedom in Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and England.

This is not to say the British were motivated by a desire to help slaves; of course they weren’t. But American slaves chose a side in the revolution, the side of the crown. They were no fools. They knew that independence meant more power for the plantation class that had enslaved them and that a British victory offered far greater prospects for freedom.

I think it’s pretty clear that blacks had it worse under American leadership than they would have under the British empire.  Indians also had it rough under the American system of government.  Canadians didn’t treat Indians very well either, but it was better than America did.

“It’s a hard case to make because even though I do think Canada’s treatment of Natives was better than the United States, it was still terrible,” the Canadian essayist Jeet Heer tells me in an email (Heer has also written a great case against American independence). “On the plus side for Canada: there were no outright genocides like the Trail of Tears (aside from the Beothuks of Newfoundland). The population statistics are telling: 1.4 million people of aboriginal descent in Canada as against 5.2 million in the USA. Given the fact that America is far more hospitable as an environment and has 10 times the non-aboriginal population, that’s telling.”

Independence also enabled acquisition of territory in the West through the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War. That ensured that America’s particularly rapacious brand of colonialism ensnared yet more native peoples. And while Mexico and France were no angels, what America brought was worse. Before the war, the Apache and Comanche were in frequent violent conflict with the Mexican government. But they were Mexican citizens. The US refused to make them American citizens for a century. And then, of course, it violently forced them into reservations, killing many in the process.

American Indians would have still, in all likelihood, faced violence and oppression absent American independence, just as First Nations people in Canada did. But American-scale ethnic cleansing wouldn’t have occurred. And like America’s slaves, American Indians knew this. Most tribes sided with the British or stayed neutral; only a small minority backed the rebels. Generally speaking, when a cause is opposed by the two most vulnerable groups in a society, it’s probably a bad idea. So it is with the cause of American independence.

The last item Matthews lists is a bit tough to swallow though:  “America would have a better system of government if we’d stuck with Britain.”  Matthews argues that if the US had stayed with Britain, and perhaps voted for independence the same way that Canada did,

we would’ve, in all likelihood, become a parliamentary democracy rather than a presidential one.

And parliamentary democracies are a lot, lot better than presidential ones. They’re significantly less likely to collapse into dictatorship because they don’t lead to irresolvable conflicts between, say, the president and the legislature. They lead to much less gridlock.

It’s clear what Matthews is arguing for, and he doesn’t like America’s system of government.

Government spending in parliamentary countries is about 5 percent of GDP higher, after controlling for other factors, than in presidential countries. If you believe in redistribution, that’s very good news indeed.

The Westminister system of parliamentary democracy also benefits from weaker upper houses. The US is saddled with a Senate that gives Wyoming the same power as California, which has more than 66 times as many people. Worse, the Senate is equal in power to the lower, more representative house. Most countries following the British system have upper houses — only New Zealand was wise enough to abolish it — but they’re far, far weaker than their lower houses. The Canadian Senate and the House of Lords affect legislation only in rare cases. At most, they can hold things up a bit or force minor tweaks. They aren’t capable of obstruction anywhere near the level of the US Senate.

While I think Matthews has some good points on items 1 and 2, he loses me with the following statements.

Finally, we’d still likely be a monarchy, under the rule of Elizabeth II, and constitutional monarchy is the best system of government known to man. Generally speaking, in a parliamentary system, you need a head of state who is not the prime minister to serve as a disinterested arbiter when there are disputes about how to form a government — say, if the largest party should be allowed to form a minority government or if smaller parties should be allowed to form a coalition, to name a recent example from Canada. That head of state is usually a figurehead president elected by the parliament (Germany, Italy) or the people (Ireland, Finland), or a monarch. And monarchs are better.

Monarchs are more effective than presidents precisely because they lack any semblance of legitimacy. It would be offensive for Queen Elizabeth or her representatives in Canada, New Zealand, etc. to meddle in domestic politics. Indeed, when the governor-general of Australia did so in 1975 it set off a constitutional crisis that made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated. But figurehead presidents have some degree of democratic legitimacy and are typically former politicians. That enables a greater rate of shenanigans — like when Italian President Giorgio Napolitano schemed, successfully, to remove Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister due at least in part to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s entreaties to do so.

In a counterpoint, Jeff Stein argues that The American Revolution was a huge victory for equality. Liberals should celebrate it.  He states why some liberals, such as Dylan Matthews are attacking the American Revolution.

“What is distasteful about Trump is not that he offends old-fashioned American values,”wrote Mother Jones’s Tim Murphy in one typical reaction. “Trump is distasteful because he taps into certain old-fashioned American values — nativism, brash tough talk, slow-burning authoritarianism; family dynasties — that have played a not-inconsequential role throughout our history.”

Over the last generation, liberals have become increasingly emboldened in their denunciations of America’s founders, says Yale historian Steven Pincus. The American left stands poised to throw the Revolution overboard, to dismiss the spirit and legacy of 1776 as merely the cause of a racist, sexist, hypocritical aristocracy we should firmly reject.

Instead, Stein argues that the bottom-up radicalism of 1776 was a true political revolution of equality, and it led to emancipation of slaves.

When the Revolution began in 1776, slavery was legal in every colony. Only Pennsylvania even had an abolition society. Slavery had existed on American soil for two centuries without being substantially challenged by whites.

The American Revolution changed that. Pennsylvania’s emancipation act of 1780, the first of its kind, was written by revolutionary leaders and explicitly cited the fight against British rule as its inspiration. Similar Northern emancipation acts followed: in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, and then in Connecticut and Rhode Island the next year.

That’s not to let the founding fathers off the hook.

Many of the founders were racist, sexist colonizers determined to wipe American Indians from the continent.

Those charges are true. No one should ever forget that while opposed to slavery as a matter of principle, many of the founders created commercial fortunes by owning other human beings.

It’s important to denounce the founders for their racism and acquiescence to slavery. That’s obviously correct and necessary.

The problem is that by applying 21st-century views on race and gender to an 18th-century context, we risk missing the real legacy of the Revolution. The founders were indeed racists by any modern standard. But even within its own time, the Revolution was a force for both racial and economic equality — and can remain the blueprint for those goals more than 240 years later.

He justifies this by noting that “Every major movement for American progress has cloaked itself in the founders’ rhetoric.”

Abraham Lincoln once remarked, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

He’s hardly alone. Indeed, nearly every major movement for social, economic, or racial equality in America has cloaked itself in the rhetoric initially established during the revolutionary era. The modern American left that wants to distance itself from the Declaration of Independence is also thus breaking with:

  • Frederick Douglass and the early abolitionists, who spoke about their mission as fulfilling the Revolution’s promise of racial emancipation. (“In justification of their revolt against the established regime, the abolitionists naturally turned to the Declaration of Independence,” Becker writes.)
  • The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 — the launch pad of the women’s rights movement in America — where Elizabeth Cady Stanton authored the “Declaration of Sentiments.” A huge chunk of it is directly lifted from the Declaration of Independence, and the Seneca Falls delegates explicitly talked about their mission as an extension of the Continental Congress.
  • Eugene V. Debs, the most successful socialist presidential candidate not from Vermont, who also worked within the framework established by the revolutionaries. “I like the Fourth of July. It breathes the spirit of revolution,” Debs said.
  • Martin Luther King Jr., whose lavish praise of the American Revolution is even more over the top than mine.
  • Revolutionary, egalitarian movements in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries in France, Latin America, Haiti, communist Vietnam(!), and Hungary that have explicitly cited the American Revolution’s egalitarian aims as inspiration.

I could go on, but the pattern here is clear: The path to progress has come not from rejecting the declaration and Revolution but by broadening its scope to those the founders wrongfully neglected.

What do you make of these points?  Would it be better for blacks, Indians, and women under the British Empire?  Could the Civil War and all those horrible deaths have been avoided?  Would America be a super power, or more similar to Canada?  Would we have a better government if we had voted out the British instead of fought them out?  What do we make of the Book of Mormon prophecies that seem to imply the founding fathers were acting under God’s will to free America from the British?


2 comments on “Was the Revolution a Mistake?

  1. Some of this is “20/20 is hindsight” thinking; for example, what would England have become if there had been no United States; or, would there have been any French Revolution? The impact of the Declaration of Independence, and the Mason-Lee draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights on the world, for example, can hardly be exaggerated. I agree that the parliamentary system is generally better, but republican institutions have to evolve organically from the ground up wherever they go; there is no easy or obvious model to reproduce everywhere.

  2. . The you tube channel crashcourse history did a great video on wether the revolution was truly a revolution or not. As an Aussie I feel america would have been beter off with out it.

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