Monday, June 20, 2016

What was the point of the American Revolution?

Last year, Dylan Matthews at Vox ventured to suggest that American Independence might have been a mistake.  Knowing this, can one celebrate July 4th with a clear conscience? 

The Declaration of Independence stresses claims to justice and rights, but this was for the practical purpose of gaining French support for the cause.  From a utilitarian point of view, it was easy to scoff at the logic (as Jeremy Bentham did).   

Independence did not yield clear material benefits -- a generation of economic stagnation followed.  And, nor did Independence do much to alleviate the burden of taxation -- it was already the lightest in the world.  Nor was Independence necessary for self-government -- colonial legislatures were elected with an even broader franchise than the House of Commons in London, and Governors wielded little power against their wishes.

So why the fuss?  There was a religious division between puritan colonists and anglicans in the mother-land -- but that was nothing new, and religious divisions among the colonies were just as great if not greater. There was popular hysteria about an oligarchic coup -- but why all of a sudden did this lead to a revolution for Independence?

The crux of the matter is foreign policy.  During the mid 1740s, American colonists fought boldly in King George's War to capture the strategically-important Fort of Louisbourg at the entrance to the St Lawrence River from the French.  As part of the peace treaty, in which many other British interests were at stake, the fort was handed back to France.  This was taken as a betrayal by the colonists, but began a genuine divergence of core national security interests between Britain and its American colonies.

Pressed against the Eastern Seaboard, and surrounded by a vast French Catholic territory stretching from Quebec to Louisiana, the protestant British colonists had little choice but to accept the situation until the  Seven Years' War -- a conquest fought across the globe in which control of North America was at stake.  When French power in North America was destroyed at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, removing the main geopolitical threat to the colonies, the situation was transformed.

When the war (the most expensive in human history until that date) ceased, the British Parliament sought for the first time to gain financial contribution from colonists to pay for their defense.  The Stamp Act of 1765, which sought to do so, set in motion an escalating cycle of resistance and coercion which led to the Declaration of Independence.

But why were the colonies unwilling to accept the protection of their kinsmen for a fraction of the cost that it would have taken them to undertake it themselves?

The reason is also largely geopolitical.  Although Daniel Boone was first to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap in 1775, the colonists were united in their ardor for westward expansion.  George Washington's early career was focused on surveying the wilderness, expanding European civilization westward through Virginia -- and many of the other Founding Fathers embraced what would later be called "manifest destiny" with similar zeal.

To George III, things appeared different.  Just as the 1770s represented an attempt by the Crown to establish a lasting settlement in financing the military defense of its American colonies, so it needed to find a new formula for the rights of its various subjects.  He had little interest in being dragged into wars provoked by settlers intruding on Indian lands.  Nor did he wish to provoke a fight with french-speaking Catholics in Quebec, who were now his subjects.  In the 1774 Quebec Act, the British Parliament granted rights to the Catholic church through the vast "Quebec" territory (which also included most of what is now America's Midwest).

Yet, the Quebec Act was one of the primary grievances mentioned by the Declaration of Independence.  What did the colonists have to fear from George III the broker and defender of a multicultural peace?

The Founding Fathers wanted to preserve their "rights of englishmen".  They wanted the right to own land, to move westward, to practice the protestant religion under their own authority, and to rule themselves through local and provincial elected assemblies.  This was at odds with the provisions made for "Quebec", which placed a hard barrier to the westward expansion of the system of self-government.  In India, where the Empire had also expanded tremendously as a result of the Seven Years War, nabobs accumulated immense fortunes, while ordinary Indians lacked any democratic rights altogether.  As the British Empire began to establish hierarchical systems of government in India and "Quebec", the American colonists had good reason to fear they would soon be treated similarly.

Independence was fundamentally a challenge to this emerging system and represented a defense of the old arrangements that the colonists had enjoyed.  Rather than being a multicultural project, it was a deliberate attempt to expand the self-governing protestant culture westwards.

Britain suffered little in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War.  It was freed to expand its Empire in Asia and Africa, while colonists pushed the Anglo-Saxon culture and system of government across the American continent unhindered by the traditional geopolitical jealousies of France or Spain.  Native American tribes had played the European powers off against each other to defend their land.  They were the main losers, once an independent United States was given free rein on the continent.

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