3 Ways to Think About the American Revolution
by Benjamin Studebaker
This Fourth of July, I noticed that some Americans are taking an interest in challenging the popular narratives surrounding the American Revolution. Over at Jacobin, William Hogeland has a go at the revolution, while Jeff Stein defends it at Vox. I find both views too strong for my taste–as I see it, the revolution has three core faces to it. We tend to only focus on one of these aspects at any given moment, but to truly understand the revolution as a historical event we need all three.
How do we identify the three faces? Each one produces a different answer to the question “what was the American Revolution about?”:
- The Libertarian Answer: Taxes.
- The Marxist Answer: Class.
- The Realist Answer: Nationalism.
All three of these answers are partially right, and if we put them together we get the full picture. Let’s take each in turn.
It’s right in the old slogan:
No taxation without representation.
Libertarians prefer to focus on the “no taxation” bit. High school kids hear this part of the story in class all the time–the British Empire spent about £161 million (roughly £29 billion in today’s money) on what Americans call “The French and Indian War”. Of course, that name always understated the scale of the conflict. The British called it “The Seven Years’ War” and it was arguably the world’s first global conflict–Britain and Prussia faced off against France, Austria, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the Mughal Empire in Europe, the Americas, and India. For the 18th century, £161 million was a lot of money, and the British ended up borrowing about £58 million and doubling the size of their national debt. Much of the land they gained in the war in the Americas was sparsely populated and not yet especially economically productive at the time:
Administering the new land was so expensive that by as late as 1775, only £5.3 million of the war debt had been paid off. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds–there were some years in which inflation ate away at this sum a bit, making the remaining 1775 war debt worth only about 67% of the original debt’s real value. With inflation and repayments combined, the 1775 debt would have been worth about £39 million in 1763’s money. It was as if they’d paid off £19 million rather than £5.3 million.
Nevertheless, Britain attempted to deal with the debt by raising taxes, and these tax increases upset many Americans, especially America’s burgeoning merchant class. However, there’s a part of the story that’s often forgotten–the British government had long given Americans major tax breaks to encourage people to settle the colonies. Before the Seven Years’ War, British subjects living in Britain often paid 5 times more in tax than their American counterparts, and in some low-tax colonies the gap was much bigger (Brits paid 38 times more than Pennsylvanians). Even as late as 1775, the tax rate in New England was only 1 to 2% of income, while the British state continued to spend 20% of the Empire’s GDP. Most of the taxes it imposed on the colonists in the 1760’s were repealed by 1770, with the exception of the tea tax. So the narrative of the British state as especially repressive with respect to taxation misses the mark–the American colonists got a pretty good deal from the empire. Today, nearly every American pays a much higher rate of tax than they would have paid as a colonist in the mid-1700’s.
Nevertheless, we mustn’t discount the impact of taxes. Americans had grown accustomed to extraordinarily favorable treatment by the British authorities, and even modest increases were upsetting. In 1778, several years into the revolution, the British attempted to reconcile with the Americans by offering them representation in parliament, but the Continental Congress rejected it. Representation, it seems, wasn’t enough for the colonists, at least by that point. Would they have accepted such a package in 1775? It’s impossible to say for sure.
For Marxists, the American Revolution is a “bourgeois revolution”–it’s a revolution by the rising capitalist bourgeoisie against the pre-capitalist aristocracy. In 1651, the British Empire passed the Navigation Acts, which prohibited colonial trade with countries like France and Spain and forced the colonies to import large quantities of British manufactured goods. The real economic impact on the colonies of these acts is not considered to have been especially large at the time. But they would have frustrated certain key economic actors, many of whom took large roles in the revolution. As Sawers puts it:
Over the course of the eighteenth century, American merchants in their commercial as well as industrial pursuits, tobacco planters acting as merchants, and artisans and journeymen in import substitution industries, were all under increasing pressure from British competition. This competition, unrecognized in the conventional analysis of the Navigation Acts, imposed substantial costs upon most of those groups in colonial society that took a leading role in the Revolution….If America had still been a British colony after 1776 and if the colonists had become successful in expanding manufacturing, the Navigation Acts would undoubtedly have been amended and enforced more strictly to obstruct American industrialization…On many occasions the colonies attempted to impose protective tariffs, but most of these attempts were disallowed. Political independence allowed the United States to give tariff protection to American industry that was largely denied the colonies. The second law passed by the US Congress under the 1787 constitution was a protectionist tariff, and protectionism continued as a guiding principle of US tariff policy. Without a protective tariff, America’s industrialization undoubtedly would have been slowed.
American capitalists needed protection from established British industry and they needed access to foreign export markets to get off the ground, and over the course of the 18th century they grew steadily more agitated over the competitive obstacles they faced.
This is not the sort of issue that would have gotten ordinary working class Americans excited about the revolution, but it is the sort of issue that would inspire wealthy businessmen to get behind it and use their wealth to push the independence narrative in the American press. Even small tax increases could be used to whip up public anger at the authorities. Many leading revolutionaries were incredibly wealthy:
- Robert Morris, the richest man in America in 1775, who gave the Continental Army £10 million. He also signed the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, later become a senator.
- William Bingham, the richest man in America in 1780, whose fleet of privateers harassed the British (and enriched him). He was in the Continental Congress and later became a senator.
- Benjamin Franklin, the richest man in America in 1785, who published a large amount of pro-revolution material and negotiated the alliance between America and France. He signed the declaration, the treaty that ended the war, and the constitution. He went on to govern Pennsylvania.
- John Hancock, the richest man in America in 1790, who funded the creation of the minutemen. He was president of the Continental Congress and governor of Massachusetts, and famously signed the declaration.
Other famous revolutionaries–like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington–were by no means paupers.
The influence of this wealthy class is evident in the structure of the American political system. Marxists point out that there was no effort to give representation to most Americans immediately after the revolution. Americans were required to own property to vote in every state until 1792, and the last state to waive the property requirement (North Carolina) did not do so until 1856. It was still constitutional for a state to charge a poll tax to vote in the United States as late as 1964, when the 24th Amendment was finally ratified.
Five southern states still charged a poll tax at that time (Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas). And of course, African-Americans, Native Americans, and woman were all denied the vote for a very long while. So there’s some truth to the claim that the American Revolution was not about creating the kind of democracy we have today–it was about transferring rule from the British parliament–still populated in large part by the old nobility–to America’s wealthy property owners and future industrialists.
Indeed, we can see some of this in the constitution’s prohibition on the creation of noble titles in the United States–the revolution was in part about abolishing the power and status of hereditary nobles in favor of the bourgeoisie, which has always viewed itself as meritocratic and friendly to “rags to riches” stories. That old distinction between the two groups of rich people which challenged one another for power and influence in the 18th and 19th centuries–the old money aristocracy, which owned the farmland, and the new money bourgeoisie, which grew out of the medieval merchant class–is often lost in mainstream political discourse, and the further division between the British and American bourgeoisie is also often looked past. Marxists are right to raise this issue, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story–the American bourgeoisie had to mobilize Americans to fight and die in the War of Independence.
British taxes weren’t very high. Most Americans didn’t have any immediate financial stake in industrialization. Why would they fight in this war? Ultimately, they came to view themselves as a separate people from the British, such that British rule and parliamentary sovereignty were simply unacceptable, even under the favorable terms offered in 1778. It took a lot of political work to create and develop this distinction, and many loyalists didn’t buy into it–it’s estimated that about 15-20% of the population actively opposed independence, while 40-45% supported it and the remainder tried to stay out of the way. Modern American patriotism arguably has its roots in the careful crafting of this separateness–thousands of Americans fought in the British army during the French and Indian War, and those people had to completely change the way they related to the British state.
The way to do this was to get folks to view the revolution as act of anti-colonialism. It is often pointed out–and quite rightly–that the Americans engaged in a great deal of colonialism themselves. The Americans were by no means fair or equitable in their treatment of Native Americans. Nevertheless, the colonizers can also simultaneously be colonizees, or at least view themselves that way. The perceived willingness of the British to suppress dissent by force–in infamous cases like the Boston Massacre–contributed to the perception, fueled by the revolutionary press, that the Americans were a subject people.
Whenever a group of people feels oppressed, their state has three options:
- Placate the oppressed group by meeting some of its demands.
- Cut the oppressed group loose and grant them independence.
- Attempt to cling on by force.
The more a state attempts to cling on by force, the more resistance it generates. Using force to suppress groups that feel oppressed makes it harder to meet their demands in a way that will satisfy them, because the willingness to use force indicates to the oppressed group that they are viewed as an “other”. The rich Americans who owned the presses did everything they could to portray the British response to the independence movement as negatively as possible, and too often the British dumped gasoline on the fire. Many rich Americans would not have been placated by Britain’s 1778 offer in 1775, but many ordinary Americans might not have fought a war against a British Empire that was seen to be making a genuine effort to listen to and meet the colonists’ discrete demands.
The lessons of the revolution–don’t exploit your colonies or even allow yourself to be seen as exploitative, and never be the first one to start shooting–were mostly lost on the European powers. They continued to get into the same kinds of conflicts with their future colonies. Often times they’d push much harder economically than they did against the Americans, and use force even more readily. This gave them no chance of integrating the colonized peoples into their states under fair terms of cooperation–the colonized people could see that they were not regarded as full citizens of the European empires, and it was only a matter of time before they found an opportunity to break free.
All three of these factors are part of the story. Rich Americans wouldn’t have stirred the pot and funded the war if they believed remaining in the British Empire would enable them to industrialize the country. Ordinary Americans wouldn’t have taken to the streets if not for their attitude toward taxation and representation, and they wouldn’t have fired the guns if the British had met American demands earlier on instead of sending in the troops. Could America have ended up like Canada or Australia if it had not become independent? Perhaps. But would Britain have allowed Canada and Australia to peacefully gain independence if they had not experienced the American Revolution? Perhaps not.
Perhaps the best way to view the revolution, in aggregate, is as a failure of politics–a failure on the part of the British and American ruling classes to come to an accommodation without the use of force, and a failure on the part of all concerned to put the interests of the people first. But it’s a failure Canada and Australia benefited from–the industrialization of the United States would eventually play a crucial role in sparing Britain the German yoke. It’s a complicated story, and it can’t just be summed up as a “good” thing or a “bad” thing.