Albert Esplugas blogs the following magnificent quote from Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power:
Schoolchildren and tourists are still taught the story of the American Revolution primarily in terms of economic burdens. In London, the argument runs, the government wanted some recompense for the cost of expelling the French from North America in the Seven Years War, and of maintaining a 10.000 strong army to police the disgruntled Indians beyond the Appalachian mountains, who had tended to side with the French. The upshot was new taxes. On close inspection, however, the real story is one of taxes repealed, not taxes imposed.
(…) In January 1770 a new government in Britain, under the famously unprepossessing Lord North, lifted all the new duties except the one on tea. Still the protests in Boston continued.
Everyone has heard of the “Boston Tea Party” of 16 December 1773, in which 342 boxes of tea worth 10.000 pounds sterling were tipped from the East India tea ship Dartmouth into the murky waters of Boston harbour. But most people assume it was a protest against hike in the tax on tea. In fact the price of the tea in question was exceptionally low, since the British government had just given the East India Company a rebate of the much higher duty free and had to pay only the much lower American duty on arriving in Boston. Tea had never been cheaper in New England. The “Party” was organized not by irate consumers but Boston’s wealthy smugglers, who stood to lose out. Contemporaries were well aware of the absurdity of the ostensible reason for the protest. “Will not posterity be amazed”, wrote one sceptic, “when they are told that the present distraction tool its rise from the parliament’s taking off a shilling duty on a pond of tea, and imposing three pence, and call it a more unaccountable phrenzy, and more disgraceful to the annals of America, than that of the witchcraft?”
On close inspection, then, the taxes that caused so much fuss were not just trifling; by 1773 they had all but gone. In any case, these disputes about taxation were trivial compared with the basic economic reality that membership of the British Empire was good – very good – for the American colonial economy. The much-maligned Navigation Acts may have given British ships a monopoly over trade with the colonies, but they also guaranteed a market for North American exports of agricultural staples, cattle, pig iron and, indeed, ships. It was the constitutional principle – the right of the British parliament to levy taxes on the American colonists without their consent – that was the true bone of contention. (…)
On 4 July 1776 (…) the Declaration of Independence was adopted by representatives of the thirteen secessionist colonies at the Second Continental Congress. Only two years before, its principal author, the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, had still addressed George III in the name of “your subjects in British America”. Now the transatlantic or “continental” Britons had become American “Patriots”. In fact, most of the Declaration is a rather tedious and overstated list of wrongs supposedly inflicted on the colonists by the King, whom they accused of trying to erect a “Tyranny over these States”. It bears all the hallmarks of a document heavily revised by an outsize committee. (…)
The Hollywood version of the War of Independence is a straightforward fight between heroic Patriots and wicked, Nazi-lie Redcoats. The reality was quite different. This was indeed a civil war which divided social classes and even families. And the worst of the violence did not involve regular British troops, but was perpetrated by rebel colonists against their countrymen who remained loyal to the crown. (…) Overall, something like one in five of the white population of British North America remained loyal to the crown during the war. (…)
[T]he Loyalists were not sufficiently disillusioned with British rule to abandon it altogether. Quite the contrary: many of them responded to defeat by emigrating northwards to the British colonies in Canada, which had all remained loyal. (…) In all, around 100.000 loyalists left the new United States bound for Canada, England and the West Indies. It has sometimes argued that in gaining Canada in the Seven Years War, Britain had undermined her position in America. Without the French threat, why should the thirteen colonies stay loyal? Yet the loss of America had the unforeseen effect of securing Canada for the Empire, thanks to the flood of English-speaking Loyalist immigrants who would soon reduce the French Quebecois to a beleaguered minority. The amazing thing is that so many people should have voted with their feet against American independence, choosing loyalty to the King and Empire over “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. (…)
The irony is that having won their independence in the name of liberty, the American colonists went on to perpetuate slavery in the southern states. As Samuel Johnson acidly asked in his anti-American pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny: “How is it that the loudest YELPS for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?” By contrast, within a few decades of having lost the American colonies, the British abolished first the slave trade and then slavery itself throughout the Empire. Indeed, as early as 1775 the British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had offered emancipation to slaves who rallied to the British cause. This was not entirely opportunistic: Lord Mansfield’s famous judgement in Somersett’s case had pronounced slavery illegal in England three years before. From the point of view of most African-Americans, American independence postponed emancipation by at least a generation. Although slavery was gradually abolished in northern states like Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, it remained firmly entrenched in the South, where most slaves lived.
Nor was independence a good thing for the native Americans. During the Seven Years War the British government had shown itself anxious to conciliate Indian tribes, if only to try to lure them away from their alliance with the French. Treaties had been signed which established Appalachian mountains as the limit of British settlement, leaving the land west of it, including Ohio Valley, to the Indians. Admittedly, these treaties were not strictly adhered to when peace came, sparking the war known as Pontiac’s Uprising in 1763. But the fact remains that the distant imperial authority in London was more inclined to recognize the rights of the native Americans than the land-hungry colonists on the spot.
I know not all libertarians–even some of my fellow anarcho-libertarians–agree with this negative, cynical assessment of the American Revolution. But I’ve become increasingly cynical about how “libertarian” the Constitution, the Revolution, and even the Declaration were.
For further reading, see my blog posts Goodbye 1776, 1789, Tom; Jeff Hummel’s “The Constitution as a Counter-Revolution”; Rockwell on Hoppe on the Constitution as Expansion of Government Power; Bill Marina (R.I.P.) on American Imperialism from the Beginning; Happy We-Should-Restore-The-Monarchy-And-Rejoin-Britain Day!; Revising the American Revolution, The Murdering, Thieving, Enslaving, Unlibertarian Continental Army; The Declaration and Conscription; ‘Untold Truths About the American Revolution’.