The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Two: A Note on Methodology
What I've been saying is this: In order to get a good understanding about why the European settlers revolted against the constituted authority of the English Crown, we have to get a good handle on exactly why it was that England created overseas colonies.
Because, in my opinion, it is the tension between what London wanted and the dream that the settlers came to embrace, that produced the fundamental rupture, which, in turn, gave rise to the rebellion of the settlers against England, pursuant to the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. Does that make sense?
In other words, London had one idea of what the colonists, as British citizens, were to be doing on American soil. At first the settlers were in agreement; but later, because of certain alienating factors, the settlers came to embrace a radically different idea about their own destiny, which required severance from the political authority of England.
The fundamental rupture is this: The settlers came to embrace an idea about their destiny, which required the construction of a separate, independent country of England. England, though, the entity had spawned overseas colonies, had no desire that they spinoff into separate, independent countries, which could potentially compete with her on an industrial and financial basis. After all, we are talking about the middle of the five-hundred-year capitalist period.
After all, as I mentioned in part one, this would have been precisely the point of the battery of mercantilist legislation London imposed on the settlers. The settlers balked under that short leash that the mother country was holding them on.
The American Revolution represents the settlers' desire and plans to become a country; and England's desire to prevent this.
We have more work to do on the question of why England created overseas colonies. I'd like to return to that, but first we have to do a little housekeeping.
You know, whenever we ask why a historical event happened, we need to do our best to put our hands on the actual kinetic forces that made x, y, z happen. In other words, we are obliged to focus on the concrete stuff that made other concrete stuff take place. Frankly, we must not allow ourselves to be unduly distracted by the elegant, august, theoretical sayings and writings of assorted elegant, august persons.
On top of that, we certainly must not make the mistake of integrating this aspirational literature---as though what was written actually came to pass---into any analysis of tangible history. This tendency, especially visible in American Revolution history, tends to dreadfully obscure and confuse things.
Here's what I am trying to say
One would not write a political history of the United States, from 1945-1980, by giving serious consideration to the aspirational literature of, say, the Democratic and Republican party platforms for the eight Presidential elections held between those years---for obvious reasons. Again, this literature is aspirational, or propagandistic for the cynical.
Look here, I think we can all agree that life is, among other things, a constant struggle---both individually and collectively---to be better than we are. The 'You' that you imagine always remains just out of reach. It remains the target you can never quite hit.
And even if you do manage to "hit it," you find that the projection has changed. You now project an idealized version of yourself that surpasses the previously idealized Self. That is to say, simply, that the bar is raised.
If we can agree to that and know that, then we can more readily understand that there is an awful lot of aspirational literature surrounding the American Revolution of 1776-1783. That is to say, at the time there were a lot of elegant, august figures saying and writing a lot of elegant, august things.
That is to say, the events surrounding the Revolution provided a platform profound philosophizing, to which I mean no disrespect. But we need to follow the actual falling dominoes that made the American Revolution happen.
Historical Interpretation: Symptoms
"No Taxation Without Representation."
I think we all understand that there came a time when London imposed a series of taxes upon the settlers. It was quite reasonable that the mother country do so, given the great expense it had gone to, to defeat both the Spanish and French threats on the North American mainland, on the behalf of the settlers. London felt that the setters ought to kick in something to help defray the cost of these campaigns.
London would try this tax, the colonists would whine about it and refuse to pay. Then London would scrape it and try another tax, which would, again, meet with the disapproval of the setters, and which, again, would send London "back to the drawing board," as it were.
And on and on and on and on...
This settler rejection of the very idea of taxation seems to have culminated in the "Boston Tea Party." Some settlers dumped a boatload of tea into the Boston Harbor, and the "rest is history," right? I mean, that's why we're a coffee drinking nation to this day, right?
It seems to me that the settlers were signaling that they had entirely renounced London's right to tax them in any way.
But what about the "representation" part?
Maybe things would have been alright if the settlers could have, perhaps, been given a few seats in Parliament or something. That way, they could have had a "say" in the kinds of taxation imposed upon the American colonies, right?
Well, does anyone ever vote to tax themselves?
The Quartering of Troops
Back in the day, the London reserved the right of British troops to temporarily set up quarters in the private homes of British-American settlers, and so forth. Remember that from ninth-grade Social Studies, or something?
Some settlers expressed resentment at this practice. Apparently, individual soldiers could be abusive.
But here's the thing: This practice is going on in the context of London protecting its British citizens from the French, Spanish, and Indian threats.
How else was London supposed to do this? Through mental telepathy? The work required "boots on the ground," as it were. To me, this is just one more sign of how fundamentally alienated the settlers had become from England. The settlers had come to see the British as an intrusive, "foreign" presence, an Other.
Historical Interpretation: Symptoms (continued)
What about all those mercantilist policies London imposed upon its British citizen-settlers of the North American mainland?
Here's the thing: As we talked about in part one, London would have wanted the settlers to consider themselves just as governable by the central government of England, as they would have been had they been physically rooted within the country of England itself.
After all, had the "colonists" been physically rooted within the physical territory of England itself, they would not have been trying to "compete" with England, on a bizarre inside-out, outside-in basis. The very idea would have been absurd, provided these "colonists" had been physically rooted within the country of England itself. Obviously, the distance of the Atlantic Ocean made the very idea something less than absurd.
Again, the fact that the settlers had rejected these policies, signaled the fact that they had renounced England's right to set economic policy for them.
1. The settlers raised the slogan of "No taxation without representation" because they had renounced England's right to set fiscal/tax policy for them.
2. The settlers rejected the idea of the "quartering of troops" because they had come to reject the idea that a "foreign" nation---in this case, England---had the right send legions of armed men into their country without permission or invitation.
3. The settlers had rejected the mercantilist policies imposed on them from London, because they had rejected England's right to set economic policy for them.
The question for us is this: Why did the settlers reject the various authorities of England, culminating in the wholesale rejection of the mother country itself?
Why is it raining?
If I ask you: Why is it raining?, you should not tell me: Because water is falling from the sky.
Now then, in this situation, "raining" and "water is falling from the sky" are, effectively, verbal synonyms. In that case, it does not help to re-categorize the phenomena I'm alluding to as a supposed "answer" to my question.
This, in my opinion, is what American Revolution analysis---much of it---rather amounts to.
The Dubious Idea of "Justice"
One problem I see with American Revolution analysis, is that people often want there to be a "good guy" and a "bad guy." That is to say, depending on your perspective, you either want to see the settlers as justified in having made their break with England. And this sense of justification informs the way many people see the American Revolution's legacy.
In this conceptualization, the British are the "bad guys." This point of view sees aspects of American Constitutional law as responses to the overbearing tyranny of the English monarchy. Coming out of all this, for example, there are some people want the unrestricted right to possess and carry any kind of firearm one can think of. This position is an intellectual legacy of the time when colonists had to be ready for the militia to defend their communities against the "redcoats" and so forth.
However, if you are an Englishman living in England, you might take a different view of the American Revolution. You may not be inclined to see it as "heroic," but rather some version of traitorous. A certain set of conclusions might follow from this interpretation.
But this may not be the way to think about that seven-year war. As we look into this, we may just find that the settlers on the North American mainland revolted against England because they could. Maybe the time was just right, in their estimation. Maybe the prospect of coming into the possession of such an enormous country, in terms of land mass and natural resources, was too tempting not to claim it as their own apart from the political jurisdiction of London. In this case, there would have been nothing London could have done to even disincline the settlers from taking this route. Though it is interesting to ask ourselves why it was that the English settler-nations of Canada and Australia elected not to revolt against the Crown....
After all, you and I both know that real history is not like the Star Wars trilogies, in which we can identify a clear good guy and bad guy. You and I both know that everyone is the hero or heroine of his or her own story; and that goes for every conceivable grouping of people as well.
Maybe the ultimate question should be structured like so: What were the factors that informed and impinged upon the decision of the British-American settlers to revolt against their country of origin, England?
Still, as I said before, I want to consider why it was that England generated overseas colonies in the first place. In part three we'll do a little more of that.
In part three I'm going to start with the year 1433, the end of the Hundred Years War between England and France. That's right. For you math majors, that's three-hundred-forty-three years before the American Revolution.
But the end of the Hundred Years War contains certain seeds which illuminates certain social pressures which drove England to create overseas colonies in the first place. But we'll talk about that next time.
Thank you so much for reading.
More by this Author
This is a commentary of the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959.
We're going to address a question: Why did some blacks fight on the side of the Revolution and others fight for the British?
- 0On the Occasion of the Death of Fidel Castro at Ninety: The Cuban Revolution in Historical and Sociological Perspective
What I want to try to do is to help us achieve clarity on just exactly what the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was all about.