Over at Slate, Eric Herschthal took the occasion of The Fourth to survey a few more recent historical perspectives on the American Revolution and national founding, noting the less flattering aspects that often get swept under the rug. While his timing may have been something of an act of civic impiety (or maybe just simple opportunism) some of his findings are important. For example:
These pop histories make arguments I haven’t seen scholars of the Revolution make in years. Implicit in all of them is the notion that the founders’ professed ideas of liberty and equality truly rallied colonists to their cause. It’s a comforting thought, but one that flies in the face of the latest research. For most of the war, the majority of colonists probably wanted nothing to do with the conflict, an argument emphasized at a recent Penn conference of leading scholars. Battlefield successes and Britain’s heavy-handed tactics may have boosted the patriots’ appeal, but it’s misleading to call their cause genuinely “popular.” To gain supporters, local patriot leaders often relied on fear and intimidation, not appeals to hearts and minds. In most towns, for instance, patriots created vigilante groups, called Committees of Safety, that forced colonists to take loyalty oaths, swearing to turn in anyone deemed suspicious. During the war, in other words, colonial America may have felt more like the Soviet Union than a free and open republic.
Also, about a third of the population of the colonies ended up moving, many to Canada. The spirit of independence only became a true consensus after the fact. Seeing the British properly is also important:
In his new academic press book, The Men Who Lost America, Andrew O’Shaughnessy shows that the British mismanaged the war not because they were unabashed tyrants but precisely the opposite: They were struggling to manage the most democratic government the world had ever seen. Britain’s popularly elected parliament never had more power than in the 1770s. But partisan politics paralyzed the government. Legislators were divided over how to respond to the American protests, and a free press only fanned the factional flames. King George III, an avid supporter of the Enlightenment, advocated a powerful display of force abroad in part to assert control over his nascent democracy at home.
George III expected an easy victory, but the conflict quickly turned into a world war. France’s entry in 1778 exposed the true weakness of Britain’s navy. It was stretched thin as ships were diverted from North America to protect the empire’s far-flung colonies in India, Africa, and the Caribbean, which were suddenly under threat. O’Shaughnessy gives plenty of credit to the patriots’ zeal (Ellis might even argue too much). But he is less gimlet-eyed about why they fought. It had less to do with vague notions of freedom—what Ellis only slightly skeptically calls “The Cause”—despite the comforting balm those ideas provided at the time for many colonists, and for us readers now. But it had a lot to do with the popular outrage the British caused when they incited Indian tribes against the colonists. And it had much to do with Britain’s decision to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom.
The Native American cause, of course, is a very complicated issue, and that it often doesn’t get talked about in connection with the War for American Independence when determining the question of what degree of justice the Revolution had is a grave omission. Slavery has been much more widely discussed.
None of this means, of course, that many of the American founders weren’t great men in their own right nor that the founding political documents weren’t a remarkable moment in the history of Western constitutionalism. Neither does it mean that we must disown America and go on a sort of global apology tour. But it does mean that we should be as critical of American politics then (less than 300 yeas ago) as we are of them now.
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