J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 08, 2013

The American Revolution as a Flop and a Model

Last week the Washington Post ran a provocative essay by the Ontario writer and retailer Paul Pirie arguing that the American Revolution was “a flop,” not achieving what the Declaration of Independence set out as its goals—or at least not achieving those goals as well as some other democratic nations today (not least of which is Canada).

Pirie noted that the U.S. of A., despite being founded with the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” today:

  • ranks 51st in the world in life expectancy at birth.
  • has far more of its population in prison than any other large democracy.
  • guarantees fewer benefits and protections for workers, and has a life-satisfaction measure behind Australia and, yes, Canada.
Pirie also points to the gridlock in Washington, a product of the U.S. Constitution’s design for the federal government. (Though I don’t think his example of an “austerity budget” right after a recession is the best example of how government should work, given classical economics. But some rational budget process would be nice.) And he doesn’t even mention the Electoral College.

I agree with Pirie that Americans have a tendency to overlook how many other nations have produced peaceful, prosperous democracies with rights for their citizens and good services for their children even though they aren’t American. Some have even done so while keeping vestiges of monarchy, which the American Revolution threw off. Some have chosen democracy under much harsher economic and geographic circumstances than the U.S.

Over the past century few of of those nations have followed our Constitution’s model. In particular, most have chosen parliamentary systems over our form of separated, overlapping, and often conflicting powers.

But in other important respects those nations have been inspired by the U.S. We Americans may be too wedded to provisions in a Constitution written over two hundred years ago by men who didn’t agree on its meaning then and couldn’t conceive of how we live today, but most nations since 1789 have seen the value of having a written national constitution. Finite terms for elected officeholders, judges empowered to overturn unconstitutional laws, and stated individual rights are other ideas the American republic worked out for the world.

Indeed, the very idea of a large republic of diverse interests was revolutionary. As scholars at the “American Revolution Reborn” conference discussed at length this spring, the American Revolution inspired many others in the following decades, including the French and Haitian revolutions of the late 1700s and the South American revolutions of the early 1800s. The example of the American republic spurred reformers in Britain, and even Canada.

Would, for example, Denmark or South Korea or Costa Rica or even Canada be as democratic as they are today if the U.S. of A. hadn’t been founded as it was in the late eighteenth century? It’s impossible to say one way or the other. History doesn’t allow for controlled experiments of that sort. But if the American Revolution had indeed “flopped,” as Pirie suggested, the world—and even Canada—might look very different today.


John L Smith Jr said...

Well said, J.L.!!!

Byron DeLear said...

In my opinion this is a short sighted anti-American hit piece, that reads more like a one-sided political mailer meant to convince with a bunch of straw man arguments a wider thesis -- namely, Americans should reject their revolution, because it failed.

I mean just read the title: “The American Revolution was a flop” — really?

There is a cottage industry in Canada to bash their larger southern neighbor U.S.A., it’s a popular topic and this piece reprises many of these arguments; having said that, the author does get some troubling characteristics out there regarding the state of the nation today, such as rates of incarceration and lack of universal health care. In many analyses, these are the fruits of corporate handled government—but in no way do they imply that the revolution of 75-76 was a failure. This is an overreach. Its good you point out the political innovations the American Revolution had that influenced world history for the better. Namely, rights embedded in persons through guarantees delineated in our founding documents; as you put it, a written constitution. Freedom of religion, speech, thought, action. Surely these existed in forms prior to our Founding, but they solidified as characteristics of modern democracy through their success in the United States.

Further, there are difficulties in comparing Canada, a nation with 30 million, to a nation with 330 million. Maybe compare California with Canada; California only has a few million more folks then our northern neighbor. Canada is a beautiful country, and has beautiful people, but it does not need to be made more beautiful, in contrast, by bashing another amazing country – our ongoing experiment in democracy and republican government, the United States of America. The piece smacks of confirmation bias, and maybe, a slight inferiority complex. Also, it’s interesting to note that Paul Pirie’s byline lists him as a “former historian.” Hmmm.

J. L. Bell said...

Clearly Pirie sought to be provocative, knowing his opening would make American readers defensive. But at the end he quotes Jefferson's comments about ongoing revolution and reform. He doesn't ask American readers to repudiate our Revolution, only to be open to further work.

I was able to find very little information about Pirie, including what background as a historian he claims. But he writes at a time when Canada has had a good run in comparison to its southern neighbor: no election seating a chief executive whom the people had clearly voted against, no costly war based on false beliefs, no severe recession, no legislative gridlock.

Of all the countries in the world, Canada is the closest match to the U.S. of A.: geographically, legally, ethnically, &c. There are signficant differences, of course, but is there a better comparison? And isn't each country an "ongoing experiment in democracy and republican government"?

Byron DeLear said...

Good points. You mention Pirie not asking Americans to "repudiate our Revolution," yet he does say this:

"Perhaps it’s time for Americans to accept that their revolution was a failure and renounce it."

Not the most constructive approach. I agree with you on your point about Canada's good run of late as contrasted with the U.S.A. On my remark of an "ongoing experiment of democracy" etc. the point was we are a work in progress and developing a more perfect union etc. thus rendering Pirie’s assertion that, “perhaps it’s time for Americans to accept that their revolution was a failure and renounce it,” a sort of non-sequitur. Don’t throw out the historical baby with the bath water—as you put it in your posting, the American Revolution set in motion a series of political innovations—“Finite terms for elected office holders, judges empowered to overturn unconstitutional laws, and stated individual rights are other ideas the American republic worked out for the world.”

As a student of history, I do not think the American Revolution flopped. It has stumbled, and maybe fallen down the stairs a few times, but I am hopeful the republic will survive; as Franklin said: if we “can keep it.”

J. L. Bell said...

The way I read Pirie, he's not suggesting Americans return to the British monarchy or parliamentary structure, but not to be quite so arrogant or complacent about our system. Not really to renounce the Revolution, but to renounce the idea that it's the best and only way to found a republic.

Mark said...

I like your even-handed, reasonable approach to Pirie's article. And I think you are right to say all democracies are ongoing experiments, and develop in their own time. New Zealand had universal suffrage a full generation before the U.S. did, and Britain made meaningful anti-slavery strides before the U.S. did. One thing that Pirie didn't touch on the was the concept of upward mobility, and the myth that it was most salient in America. In fact a number of studies have shown that other western democracies outstrip the U.S. for social advancement. WRT Jefferson's feelings on adaptability, I couldn't help but think about guns in the U.S..

On the whole, I think ALL western democracies have a long way to go. As a Canadian I sure don't feel like Canada is perfect.

G. Lovely said...

The American Revolution was far from a flop, it was a clarion call, announcing a new age of man. The defects we have as a nation arise when those lofty principles encounter the politics of real people.

I've been to far more of Canada than most Canadians, and I can assure 'former historian' Mr. Pirie that, despite conclusions drawn from some isolated statistics, no nation, even Canada, can claim to have achieved anything close to political perfection. For evidence, I suggest he ask their recent immigrants, ask the Dene, or ask the Quebecois.

G. Lovely said...

J.L. - With your research skills perhaps you can prove otherwise, but after a little looking around I think the piece by "former historian" "Paul Pirie" may be a hoax.

J. L. Bell said...

I‘ve found enough about Paul Pirie to think he's not a hoax, though he's probably having a laugh. As to what makes him a “former historian," that's a mystery, but it's not a profession that requires certification.

I think it's worth nothing that Pirie didn't claim that Canada, New Zealand, or other modern democracies that didn't have revolutions are perfect, only that right now they rank higher than the U.S. of A. on certain measures of well-being.

Mark said...

The Harvard Business Review looks at the Legatum Prosperity Index and declares that the U.S. is a country in decline. It measures GDP and several other things for overall well-being. In this list, the U.S. didn't make the top 10. I, however, wouldn't write the U.S. off just yet....


Steve MC said...

What was a success was laying down the ideals we're still working towards. It took us a long time to give freedom to slaves, the right to vote to women, citizenship to Native Americans, and so on. But the guiding principles have stayed the same. It just takes a while to live up to such a calling.

J. L. Bell said...

I think most historians would say that the Founders lay down ideals that most of them were barely able to conceive (votes for wives?!), much less allow to guide them. But nonetheless by basing the Revolution rhetorically on universal, natural rights, they did set the compass.

I also prefer Lincoln's formulation in the Gettysburg Address that the idea of all men being equal, &c., is a "proposition" we constantly have to prove rather than a "self-evident truth" we can agree about and then put away on the shelf.

Mark said...

Joseph Howe, from a family of Boston Loyalists, successfully defends himself in 1835 on charges of seditious libel in Halifax:

"But, gentlemen, I fearlessly consign myself, and what is of more consequence, your country’s press, into your hands. I do not ask for the impunity which the American press enjoys, though its greater latitude is defended by the opinions of Chancellor Kent; but give me what a British subject has a right to claim impartial justice, administered by those principles of the English law that our forefathers fixed and have bequeathed. Let not the sons of the Rebels look across the border to the sons of the Loyalists, and reproach them that their press is not free."