Should We Celebrate the American Revolution?

Libertarians often insist Independence Day is really our holiday, which statists have no right to celebrate with a straight face. But perhaps this whole approach is misguided. Maybe the lovers of freedom should be the ones loath to bring out the fireworks.

Surely, conservatives who cherish the Fourth of July while cheering today’s wars have a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance. The American Revolution was, at best, a revolt against empire. The taxes at issue were being used to finance Britain’s national security state. The colonial rebels didn’t “support the troops” – they resented them. And they resented Britain’s status as the hypocritical world power, which closely resembled the modern United States – an empire claiming the mantle of liberty while smashing its colonial subjects. Today’s conservatives would have likely been partisans of King George. In our own time, true independence would mean Washington, DC, releasing control of its satellites and colonies worldwide.

We could also find it hilarious that Obama Democrats celebrate Independence Day, as though liberty of the old American sort has anything to do with their agenda. They have an implacable thirst for an expansive federal government whose depredations dwarf those of eighteenth-century England.

Indeed, the American Revolution had a distinctive libertarian flavor. The liberal values of anti-imperialism and anti-taxation were central. The grand ideals of legal equality for women, anti-slavery, and religious toleration began to flourish, thanks to the revolutionary spirit in the air. The colonial Americans inspired a philosophical revolution of global significance whose wonderful effects continue to this day. Although no nation has a monopoly over the universal principles of liberty, there are elements in American independence that should give hope to all who hold freedom dear.

But from a libertarian standpoint, the American Revolution has a very dark side. There is also nuance lost in the common narrative. It wasn’t a simple tax revolt, at least not as conventionally limned. For one thing, Americans had resented the 1764 Revenue Act’s reduction of the 1733 Molasses Act tax rate, despising the enforcement mechanism and efficiency of the new law more than the tax itself. Even less understood is the 1773 Boston Tea Party, a revolt against a tax cut – a reduction in British taxes on East India tea, designed to undercut the price of smuggled Dutch tea. Monopoly privileges over the cheaper tea were also involved, but as Charles Adams has written, the Boston Tea Party “was a wanton destruction of private property in an age when private property was held in great esteem . . . [which] was not well received in the colonies. . . . [Benjamin] Franklin was shocked and acknowledged that full restitution should be paid at once to the owners of the tea. Most Americans believed this way, but unfortunately the majority of Americans were to feel the heel of the British boot.” After the rebellion against tea began to spread, with boycotts emerging elsewhere and Boston merchants finally rejecting all tea just in case it was English, the Crown responded with the Coercive Acts. They were implemented by a bolstered presence of the military police state – another reminder to modern Tea Party activists that they should be especially concerned about the law enforcement arm of the state.

The entire uprising against Britain entailed no small dose of hypocrisy, at least on the part of the American leaders. Most everyday colonists who fought and died had a true interest in liberty, having resented the taxes and military presence that naturally resulted from the British war against France in the late 1750s and early 1760s. The first major battle in that war, the Battle of Jumonville Glen, was an ambush of French Canadians spearheaded by George Washington. This siege cascaded into the Seven Years War, a world conflict involving Britain, France, Prussia, Hanover, Portugal, the Iroquois Confederacy, Austria, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Saxony, and another half-dozen countries – a war that lasted three years after hostilities ceased in North America. When the colonists faced the lingering price of this international war, powerful Americans led a revolt against their king, sending poor colonists to die in a war that mostly served the interests of the few, much as they had done a generation earlier to advance the interests of the American elite and British empire, including in the takeover of Canada and Florida.

Americans’ anti-imperial motivations in the Revolution were often genuine, but not always pure. The hostility toward Britain for its Quebec Act, for example, was indeed motivated in part by libertarian sentiment: anger that the colony was losing such common law rights as habeas corpus. But there was also animosity toward the British for reversing its ban on Catholicism in Quebec. The Continental Army’s first major operation was to invade Canada to “liberate” the inhabitants from British rule (and with the intention to subject them to U.S. rule). The Canadians, mostly of French stock, were meanwhile generally neutral toward the war between these two hostile powers. Five thousand Americans died in the narrowly failing effort to conquer Canada, and thousands have been dying in disingenuous U.S. wars of liberation ever since.

Furthermore, the American Revolution ushered in a horrific warfare state whose tyrannical nature never completely subsided after the war. A year before the Declaration of Independence, General Washington began the process of structuring the military along authoritarian lines, instituting gratuitously unequal pay, dealing death to deserters, and even attempting (but failing) to raise the maximum corporal punishment to 500 lashes. “In short,” writes Murray Rothbard in Conceived in Liberty (Vol. 4), “Washington set out to transform a people’s army, uniquely suited for a libertarian revolution, into another orthodox and despotically ruled statist force after the familiar European model.”

The American government relied on a form of conscription and even, by 1779, began impressing people into the navy – the very same oppressive practice Britain had committed to the consternation of the colonists. The Continental Congress flooded the country with paper money, increasing the money supply by 50% in 1775 and causing commensurate rises in prices. Government contractors became incredibly wealthy, leaving most Americans to suffer the brunt of the burden for many years.

Especially brutal were the crackdowns on loyalists, some in league with the British and others, like the Quakers, simply passive opponents of the war. Tories were targeted for special taxes, censored, arrested on mere suspicion and without due process, and thrown into prison camps. Sometimes they were tarred and feathered – a form of torture – or even executed. When they couldn’t be found, their families were sometimes punished. Their estates were liquidated and assets distributed, sometimes in a democratic manner along the lines of anti-feudal land reform, but with much of the loot ending up in the hands of the politically connected. A hundred thousand loyalists had to go into exile, Rothbard estimates, a far higher percentage of the population than those displaced by the supposedly more radical French Revolution.

Even the Declaration of Independence, whose adoption is celebrated on July Fourth, features unfortunate examples of hypocrisy. Consider the condemnation of the British for turning the “savage” American Indians against the colonists. There was some validity to the complaint, but coming from a political leadership that had allied with at least some “savages” not so long before in the war with France, and who soon enough instituted a nearly genocidal policy of expansionist displacement of the Indians, this is no minor defect in the Declaration’s language. Although the British were hardly altruistic angels toward the Indians, they posed a less urgent threat than the Americans. Given this and such British policies as the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbade white settlers from moving into the Indian Reserve west of the Appalachian Mountains, it is no surprise the Indians mostly fought for England in the American Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson had originally also wanted to include in the Declaration language blaming the British for the importation of slavery into the colonies, which was a libertarian enough sentiment, but also a bit gaudy in light of the simultaneous condemnation of Britain for fomenting “domestic insurrections” by the same slaves. Responding to the Crown’s promises to liberate slaves who defected, and prevented from enlisting in Washington’s army, tens of thousands of slaves fled their American masters during the war. About 20,000 were ultimately freed by the British. If the Southern cause in the War Between the States is at all tainted by the South’s devotion to the institution of slavery, and most modern Americans seem to think it is, the least they can do is be consistent and hold the peculiar institution against the American colonies as well.

Most libertarians admire the Declaration. Even Sam Konkin, the radical anarchist, once told me he had no problem with Jefferson’s famous document, but let us not be blind to the hypocrisy behind its signing. Every time this year, conservative nationalists go on the radio and send out a popular e-mail talking up the dismal fates visited upon many of the signers, to whose selflessness we owe our freedom. The problem is, this is mostly myth. For example, it is often said that nine signers died during the Revolution – but only one actually fell from battle wounds, which were inflicted not by the British, but in a duel with a fellow American. Sixty-nine percent of the signatories had, however, “held colonial office under England,” according to historian Howard Zinn.

Libertarians must unflinchingly oppose Britain’s eighteenth-century imperialism. But this doesn’t mean we must worship the Revolutionary war or the American leaders who manipulated and profited off it, or blind ourselves to the possibility that peace was preferable – even once the war was underway. In 1778, the British empire sent the Carlisle Commission to America to negotiate a truce, offering a qualified independence of the sort that would have eventually amounted to commonwealth status. Such terms would have likely satisfied the colonists a few years earlier. But the American leadership rejected the peace feelers outright, emboldened by their military progress and alliance with France and determined to absorb Canada and turn the war into the first exercise in the new power elite’s quest for hemispheric hegemony.

Of course, London had no rightful claim to control the American colonies, but perhaps a more peaceful mode of independence was possible, one that could have spared five more years of war and thousands of lives. We might be glad America is now “independent” from Britain, although over two centuries later the countries do seem to be connected at the hip as it concerns foreign policy, the grievance that led to the war in the first place.

There’s a great line in The Patriot: “Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away? An elected legislature can trample a man’s rights as easily as a king can.” Mel Gibson’s character ultimately signs on to the war effort, but the soundness of his point only becomes clearer looking at early U.S. history. Even the pre-Constitution state governments were tyrannical. Shays’ Rebellion is cited as a failure of the Articles of Confederation to deal with unrest, but we should remember that two of the rebels were executed by the Massachusetts state effectively enough.

In the first five U.S. presidencies, we see the American empire, albeit in embryonic form, begin its centuries-long crusade of aggressive expansion and centralization of power in the capital. George Washington cracked down on the libertarian Whiskey Rebellion, created a national bank, and put Alexander Hamilton, a centralizing statist, in charge of the Treasury. John Adams blatantly violated the First Amendment as much as any president since with his notorious Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson deployed the Marines on an ultimately failed mission in the Barbary war, attempted to suspend habeas corpus and create a department of education, imposed a brutal embargo on English goods that decimated the economy and destroyed privacy rights, and conducted the Louisiana Purchase in bold defiance of the Constitution. James Madison invaded Canada in his war with England, a war in which martial law was enforced in New Orleans and a judge was jailed merely for issuing a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a newspaper editor whose only crime was criticizing the war. Under James Monroe, the U.S. invaded Spanish Florida and adopted a doctrine whereby the U.S. would essentially claim prerogative over the whole of the Western Hemisphere, a colonial pretension whose bloody legacy continues to this day. This could all be blamed on the Constitution rather than the American Revolution itself, but it was the war that brought the “Founding Fathers” to power and allowed them to consolidate authority and take over the nation.

July Fourth celebrations did not become tacky or hypocritical only recently. The day was always a dubious cause of commemoration. The word “holiday” – holy day – clearly has a religious connotation. It is a day set aside for sacred observation. Those who regard Independence Day revisionism as profane should ask themselves which religion is sacrosanct to them. The Fourth of July is ultimately a celebration of the American nation-state’s birthday. It is a ritual in the U.S. civic religion. This is why it has been a militarist tradition since 1777, when the occasion was marked in Philadelphia with 13-gun salutes and imagery of the battle flag everywhere. The greeting card holidays might seem unworthy of mention alongside Christmas, Hanukkah and Easter. But Independence Day, even more than the politically correct and secular days celebrated every year, resembles an actual incidence of blasphemy.

There is a heroic side to the American Revolution, and surely no U.S. war since has been nearly as just in its cause. But the political shenanigans that led to war, the war itself, and its aftermath all deserve more criticism. Sadly enough, those who support the federal government’s domestic ambitions and foreign occupations while waving the flag on Independence Day are only as hypocritical as the colonists who tarred and feathered their antiwar countrymen in the name of liberty, the soldiers who invaded Canada in the name of anti-imperialism, the rebels who destroyed privately owned tea in the name of property rights, the Founders who waged a war against tyranny only to create a regime as formidable as King George’s, or the Father of our Country who started an unnecessary and tragic world war and then led a revolution in refusal to pay the bills for it.

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  • Anthony, could you indicate me a good “revisionist” book on the American Revolution? I am very much interested in the subject.