Friday, July 5, 2013

Behind a Declaration

Another fourth of July having passed, it is an occasion again to ponder the dramatic events of the American War for Independence, popularly known as the American Revolution (or Revolutionary War). The most important thing about the conflict is that it gave birth to the United States of America which has had no small impact on the subsequent history of the entire world, particularly after assuming global super-power status in the aftermath of World War II. That created some problems for the idea of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence that is still celebrated every fourth of July. As someone once said (I want to say it was Mussolini but I could be wrong), ‘the problem with revolutions is that the revolutionaries survive them’ or words to that effect. With the Declaration of Independence, the American revolutionaries claimed extraordinary powers. They claimed the “right” that any people dissatisfied with their government were justified in using violent means to overthrow that government and replace it with one more to their liking. The document, of course, is silent on how “the people” come to such a decision. After all, no democratic vote was taken across the colonies in favor of independence or even for rising up against the British. Even the most ardent Patriots had to admit that their cause was a minority one and that most colonists either opposed the revolution or were unwilling to support it.

Even at the time those stirring words were penned, exactly who “the people” included was a debatable point. Loyal Americans were even then being killed, tortured, robbed and driven into exile because they did not support the revolution. And, of course, as we still see clearly today, the United States, having achieved independence (and ultimately great power status) has never been willing to apply those same rights to other people or even their own. When the southern states voted to secede from the Union they were met with crushing military force and the utter devastation of their country to force them back into the Union. When the United States won The Philippines from Spain, the Union inherited a guerilla war for independence and American troops had to be sent in to crush the Filipino rebels. Americans are expected to change governments by means of the democratic process rather than armed rebellion, within the structure of the federal republic set up by the constitution with must remain always sacrosanct. Revolutionaries all around the world, oftentimes the most monstrous of characters, have not hesitated to point out to the United States the hypocrisy of American opposition to their own acts of terror and rebellion given how they revere their own founders who did the same.

In that respect, the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence have sometimes been problematic for the United States but because it created the country these things can never be denounced but must be clung to with religious fervor. Some of the very same men who fought the Revolutionary War and helped write the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were some of the same men who had rebels shot for defying government regulations and passed the Alien and Sedition Act which put people in jail for daring to voice opposition to the government. Most historians, if they have any honesty at all, will admit this. However, they will usually fall back on the tired line that, while the American Patriots may not have been perfect, they were at least better than the British alternative. This is most often seen when modern, liberal American scholars must deal with groups they have ordained as perpetual victims; African-Americans and Native Americans. They must admit that men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had slaves but paint them as being kindly masters who were never really comfortable with the institution. To hear some talk, one would think slaves had been forced on these men and that they were incapable of emancipating them even though they really, really wanted to.

They will also have to admit that, during the Revolutionary War, most Blacks took the side of the British Crown. Some will try to appear even-handed and understanding, pointing out (quite correctly) that it only made sense for slaves to side with the British since the British offered freedom in return for service to the Crown. However, most will hasten to add that this was no more than a British ruse and that the British never had any intention of actually keeping that promise. Here, despite their best efforts, their liberal condescension can usually be detected. They paint a picture of unfortunate, ignorant slaves being duped by those dastardly Brits. The truth, of course, is that most African-Americans sided with the British because it was in their own rational self-interest to do so and they were absolutely right. Just as attitudes on race were different in the northern colonies where there were no slaves, so too in Britain itself was slavery regarded as rather unsavory even at that time. Regardless of what happened during the war, slavery would have been abolished in America much earlier had the British won. At the time, the British attitude toward Blacks was not that different from any other people. The only difference was that in Britain the idea of equality, racial or otherwise, was still regarded as absurd. They saw slavery for what it was and that probably helped in getting rid of the institution. In America, on the other hand, slave holders could shout for liberty and be praised for it. Slavery was not really slavery, it was the “peculiar institution”. Because the Founding Fathers had already declared that “all men are created equal” yet still owned slaves, it could only be reasoned that slaves were not just men deprived of their freedom but not men at all, simply property. With such an attitude it is no wonder that slavery lingered in America so long and was so hard to eradicate.

On the subject of the Native Americans, their suffering and the horrors inflicted on them are one of the least known aspects of the Revolutionary War. Many books tell of their attacks on colonial settlers, and there were such attacks and they were quite brutal affairs -such was local custom. However, few American history books relate how the Continental Army went on a punitive campaign against the American Indians, endeavoring to wipe them out completely, destroying everything they had, killing men, women and children alike and leaving nothing behind so that the survivors would starve or freeze to death. How many people know that the idealized George Washington, because of this campaign, was given a name by the Iroquois that meant, “Burner of Villages”? After Washington became the first President of the United States, for a long time many American Indians still used the term “Burner of Villages” as the title of every American President. Again, most American history does not talk too much about the part played by Native Americans at all, however, those that do try to play up the minority who allied with the Patriots or they, again, blame Indian atrocities on the British and paint the American Indians as being duped by more clever British officials into supporting their side. In fact, most Native Americans displayed a clear grasp of the political situation at the time and had for many years. They acted in their own rational self-interest which, unfortunately, meant choosing the side that was to lose. Just as in the French and Indian War they looked at the British who were sending over colonists and the French who mostly sent over Jesuits and fur traders and most decided it was in their best interest to side with France. In the Revolutionary War, even more looked at the colonies continuously reaching westward and the British Crown trying to keep them confined to the coastal region so as to avoid costly conflicts and quite logically sided with the British.

Unlike some monarchists, although my sympathies would unquestionably have been with the loyalists on July 4, 1776, I do not have the animus some do against the United States. It was a “revolution” in an academic sense only. Technically it was simply a war of secession. The “revolutionaries” won and yet the British government went on as before and King George III remained safely on his throne. I do, however, object to the way facts are glossed over (usually unpleasant ones) and the way the Revolutionary War and its main players have been so deified in the popular imagination. Many remark about how successful the United States was, growing and expanding and yet they fail to mention how this came about. There were certainly bitterly antagonistic political factions in the early republic (and still are) but the United States benefited immensely from what were rather cruel policies. The divisions that existed were differences of opinion between two varieties of liberals. The traditional conservatives, the loyalists, had all been driven from the country and that certainly makes government a great deal easier. Perhaps most significant though is the refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of the ideas and the fanaticism encouraged by the Revolution.

Many monarchists are quick to blame the French Revolution on the American Revolution. The ideas inspired it and the expense of French intervention caused it to this way of thinking. I, however, have never subscribed to that mentality. To me, this lets off far too easy those who actually rioted in the streets, who actually stormed the palaces, who actually voted for the revolution and who actually carried it all out. However, there is no question that the success of the American rebels helped to make revolution thinkable in France and the French Revolution had far more disastrous and long-term consequences than simply the division of the English-speaking world into two camps. There again though, to this very day, we see a refusal of people to face up to the responsibilities of the revolutionaries. The Declaration of Independence that Americans celebrate on the Fourth of July could certainly be used by the revolutionaries in France to justify their grotesque behavior. Modern historians, however, praise the French Revolution for bringing food to the hungry and democracy to the disenfranchised (neither of which is true) while also acknowledging that this came at a terrible price in terms of human suffering, as though this were an entirely unavoidable consequence. Not true!

The Reign of Terror did not just happen, it was ordered. It did not have to happen, the King and Queen did not have to die and those who preached the principles of revolution and even those who embraced the Declaration of Independence in America should be made to accept responsibility for what their ideas caused. No revolution ever filled the stomach of a starving child. Killing the King and Queen of France put no bread on anyone’s table. Even if you believe that some of the ideals of the revolution were laudable, the revolution was not necessary to bring those about. There is every indication that King Louis was moving toward a more representative government anyway. Similarly, King George III did ultimately offer the American colonies autonomy within the British Empire, effectively dominion status as it would later be known, but was rejected. These people all could have remained loyal and worked within the system to achieve those goals that were just and reasonable. They chose not to, it was their decision and they are responsible for the consequences of  that, most of which have been very, very negative.


  1. In view of your opinion that slavery would have been abolished in America much sooner had the colonies remained British, does it follow that the American Civil War could have been avoided aw well if there had been no American Revolution? I have always felt ambivalent about celebrating July 4 since it is the day Vicksburg fell after the horrible siege.

    1. The people of Vicksburg suffered more than probably any American city in history but they are not the sort that will ever get any sympathy for that. I think the war would have been avoided because at that time each state or colony would have been isolated, there would have been no precedent for secession and it didn't cause a civil war in the British Empire when slavery was abolished even though it was still going pretty strong in the Caribbean islands. Even as it was, slavery was doomed in America. I think Jefferson Davis even said during the war that slavery would have only lasted another seven years if the Confederacy had won.

  2. Why would the British not make the Black colonist slaves if they had them in the Caribbean?Why would they let them go free?

    1. Umm...because they realized it is wrong to treat human beings like property. That's about all there is to it.


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