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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Friday, August 12, 2011

The Revolution as A Grand Mistake?

Even more provocative than yesterday’s title is The American Revolution: A Grand Mistake, by Leland G. Stauber, a retired professor of political science at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Stauber recognizes four great advantages to America of how it became independent through the Revolutionary War of 1775-83:
  • The “Great Declaration,” including its prefatory statement of equality and natural rights.
  • Rejection of titled nobility and monarchy, in contrast to Latin America.
  • Early economic independence from Britain.
  • “Early democratization to universal white manhood suffrage.”
But then he contrasts the U.S. of A.’s political path with Canada’s route to what’s basically the same level of freedom and self-government, and asks:
Were there, however, with the advantage of hindsight, also major disadvantages to the train of events that led to the total independence of the United States, as distinct from enlarged autonomy and partial independence, at the early date of 1783 and in the context of armed conflict?
Stauber lists four major areas of disadvantage for America:
  • The dilemma of slavery. That of course led to a bloody civil war and decades of official discrimination based on race.
  • “Legislative union v. Purely voluntary federation.” On this point, Stauber misses the fact that the Articles of Confederation attempted to settle that question by declaring the colonies’ union to be “perpetual.” The Continental Congress actually tried to settle that question; during the early republic’s political battles, some Founders reopened it.
  • The American system’s checks and balances, separate legislative and executive branches, and overlapping national and state governments. “It inherently stacked the cards in favor of conservative interests, including a powerful business community, concerned to block governmental actions. It also ranks low, in international comparison, in capacity for coherent decision making.” [You think?] Most democracies now have parliamentary governments, in which the majority of the larger house also determines the executive branch, so there’s no divided government to gridlock. In addition, Stauber notes that it’s relatively difficult to amend the U.S. Constitution—though producing a comprehensive written national constitution was a valuable innovation at the time.
  • Underlying American mind-sets about the role of government, projecting the specific concerns about the British government’s expansion in the 1760s onto all centralized government.

Stauber discusses the influence of the American Revolution on Britain, the rest of Europe, Canada, and South America. Curiously, however, there’s only one, negative mention of Haiti, whose first revolution was directly inspired by the American example and led in part by veterans of the American war.

I grant Stauber his argument that having a war of independence wasn’t a necessary prerequisite for entering the 20th century as a large democratic republic in North America. And today there are many more examples of such republics with all sorts of different histories. However, his calculations of how things might have been different don’t factor in the inspirational aspect of U.S. independence by 1783. The American republic offered an example to the rest of the world.

If we think about how the U.S. might have developed differently without the Revolution, we should also think about how the world might have developed differently in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries without the U.S. Only then should it be possible to conclude that there was “a grand mistake.”


EJWitek said...

The government established by the Constitution is so ineffective and ranks so low in "international comparison in capacity for coherent decision making" that it only enabled the United States to expand across a continent, fight the British to a draw in the early eighteenth century,defeat Mexico and Spain in imperialist wars, win a massive civil war and recover from it, defeat Germany and its allies in two world wars, win a "Cold War" and manage to build the greatest economy and widest spread prosperity for its citizens in the history of the world,( even if the current political class is doing it best screw it all up). Purgamentum init, exit purgamentum.

Robert S. Paul said...

I'm not sure I agree that gridlock and a difficult path to amendment is a negative.

In practice, of course, both parties tend to do what's best for their own coffers, but in essence the high threshold means things only get changed or passed if they're really necessary.

Matt Phillips said...

I agree with you. And Stauber's argument seems to presume that some sort of peaceful path toward Canadian-style autonomy would have been plausible. Both sides made misjudgments, provocations, and overreactions at various points in the 1763-75 period, but as far as I know, Parliament never showed a realistic sign of conceding on the core issue of direct representation for American colonists. A peaceful transition to independence over many decades was possible for Canadians because their population of conquered French and their descendants, exiled American Tories and theirs, and more recent British immigrants lacked (comparatively) the attachment to the long traditions of self-government that Whigs in America felt were taken away from them after the French and Indian War.

AD said...

Very good points, J. L.

Bruce Trewin said...

Some good comments on the potential for conflict inherent in the separation of the American legislative branch from the executive branch of government, and the potential for deadlock,which we see today and during the previous administration. This situation cannot occur in the Canadian style of parliamentary democracy.