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, September 02, 2013

Was the American Revolution a Good Thing?

I wasn’t at the “American Revolution Reborn” conference when, as described yesterday, J. F. Gearhart “asked one group of commentators if they thought the American Revolution was a good thing.” But I arrived the next day and heard the same question from him during a conversation inside the Independence National Historical Park’s portrait gallery, with Bill Pencak also participating.

I immediately told Gearhart that I believed the American Revolution had been a Good Thing. And then I raised some questions about what that might mean. Does that judgment require assessing the Revolution’s benefits for humanity as a whole, and over what timeframe?

The Continental Congress’s declaration of “self-evident” truths about equality and rights rings hollow in the 1700s considering how those men didn’t grant such equality and rights to most people around them. I prefer Abraham Lincoln’s formulation that those noble ideas are a “proposition” that our society should be dedicated to confirming—a possibly never-ending struggle.

I quoted Chou En-Lai’s fabled answer to the question of whether the French Revolution was a Good Thing: “It’s too soon to tell.” [It has since come out that, though President Richard Nixon had asked Chou about 1789, the Chinese premier answered with remarks about 1968. Another fine story foundered on hard facts.]

And all of my remarks appeared to go over like a damp squib.

I may wrong Gearhart, but in our conversation he seemed more interested in lamenting that academics wouldn’t join him in calling the American Revolution a Good Thing than in considering what that label might mean and what value that question might have.

“Was the American Revolution a Good Thing?” is a yes-or-no question. It can be answered with a single word. But really good questions provoke more thinking and rethinking and discussion. It would be much more interesting to ask “In what ways was the American Revolution a Good Thing?” or “For whom was the Revolution a Good Thing?” or “What do we mean when we say that a historical event was a Good Thing?”

Furthermore, Gearhart’s question might ultimately demand the unanswerable: what the world would look like if the American Revolution had never happened, or had happened quite differently. It also brings up ethical dilemmas that the best philosophers still debate, such as how to weigh bad effects against good over time, good intentions against bad results, costs to some against benefits for all. If we had definite answers to all those dilemmas, life would be much clearer.

You might notice that I’ve adopted the capitalization of “Good Thing” from W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s hilarious review of British history, 1066 and All That. That book was published eighty-three years ago, and it was already parodying the notion that anything that strengthened The Nation must obviously be a Good Thing.

Gearhart’s question appears to have been whether the Revolution was a Good Thing for The Whole World rather than just the U.S. of A., which is more admirable. But it still asked scholars to boil down an immensely complex, multifaceted, and perhaps ongoing process into a simple yes-or-no answer. No wonder they declined.

TOMORROW: Get on the Good Thing?


Mark said...

If the question is largely meant for those around the world, then why aren't people outside of the U.S. the ones being asked ?

As for 1789, I ran across this interesting piece of legislation from 1793 in Upper Canada(Ontario). Its called, "An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province." It was the beginning of the end for slavery in Canada, even if it was something of a compromise.

So, while Americans were THEORIZING about certain rights, those in Canada were doing something about it at roughly the same time. But this still leaves open the critical question: did the 1793 law come about because those in Canada were spearheading human rights causes, or because they were inspired by American proclamations of equality ?? I don't have the answers at the moment, though its something to explore at a later date.....


Mark said...

Well, looks like I found my answer wrt to the raison d'etre of this early legislation....and it has little or nothing to do w/ being inspired by the U.S.. As early as 1791, and possibly earlier, John Graves Simcoe had this to say about slavery in the new colony:

"The principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America or Europe."

Is it possible that it was Britain affecting America, rather than the reverse ? When Simcoe enacted the 1793 law, it meant any black entering Upper Canada was a free man. This promise of freedom led many blacks to go there, including Josiah Henson, who was the source of Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin".

J. L. Bell said...

The Revolution’s rhetoric of liberty seems to have inspired constitutions or laws against slavery in Vermont (1777), Pennsylvania (1780), Massachusetts (1783), and the U.S.’s Northwest Territory (1787). I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also a factor in Upper Canada, especially when that would be a way for the new province to distinguish itself from the U.S. of A. as a whole.

In the first and fourth of those American examples, the territories had few rich white inhabitants of the sort who owned slaves, and I suspect that was the same situation in Ontario. It was easier to forgo or limit slavery than to make entrenched interests give up part of their wealth.

The Act of 1793 looks rather like the laws against importing slaves that the Massachusetts and Virginia legislatures passed before the Revolution. Those laws (vetoed by the Crown) wouldn’t have ended slavery in those colonies or forced any wealthy slaveowners to give up their property. Unlike those pre-Revolutionary acts, however, the Upper Canada Act of 1793 provided for eventual freedom in the next generation. I think the Pennsylvania law was similar.

J. L. Bell said...

Simcoe’s statement about the British constitution runs up against some hard facts: slavery in the British West Indies, slavery in the British North American colonies that he had recently fought to keep, slavery in remaining British colonies, and slavery in Upper Canada itself. On his side he had the Somerset decision of 1773 and Whig ideas of liberty.

As a British statesman, Simcoe of course grounded his policy in British values. He certainly wouldn’t have pointed to the Vermont or Pennsylvania or Massachusetts examples in 1793. But he was also definitely imposing his interpretation of British values on the new province—and a good thing (or Good Thing), too.

Since the law didn't end slavery outright, it looks like a compromise between Simcoe's position and the province's slaveholding and trading interests. If another man had been royal governor, would the legislature have addressed slavery that way? Were there other voices at Simcoe's side?

Mark said...

The problem with a few American states abolishing slavery is that it did little to help in the overall practise of it, especially since these states abided by the Fugitive Slaves Act. The majority of America still allowed slavery, and those that fled those jurisdictions had nowhere to flee for safety, since they would be returned to the slave owners by these so-called free states. That's why the Underground Railroad reached its busiest point in the 1850's - 1860's.

What Simcoe did was far more progressive: his law said you're free if you make it here, AND we won't send you back.

He wasn't alone in his opinions ....William Osgoode, the 1st Chief justice of Upper Canada also supported the abolition of slavery.

J. L. Bell said...

You appear to be mixing historical periods and territories, Mark, always in a way that produces a favorable comparison.

If you want to talk about 1793, then let's acknowledge that slavery continued to be legal in both "the majority of America" and the majority of British North America—Upper Canada was a new, small (in population) province. Even there in Ontario, slavery was to be phased out gradually, as in Pennsylvania, rather than rendered unenforceable, as in Massachusetts. No other province followed that lead. In 1798 some Upper Canada legislators tried to repeal Simcoe's law, showing that the society had not entirely accepted his values.

It appears to have taken a while for Upper Canada to become a haven for escaping American slaves. During the first decades of the 1800s, the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act put responsibility on local officials, and in free states officials often didn't enforce that law. How many escapees went all the way to Upper Canada in Simcoe's lifetime? Josiah Henson didn't cross the border until 1830.

In 1834 the British government ended slavery throughout its empire. The last slaves in Ontario had died or grown to majority well before then, and Canadian society seems to have accepted abolitionist values. At that point, all of Canada was clearly a refuge from slavery—and that was a Good Thing.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made U.S. law much harsher and accelerated the Underground Railroad to Canada because free-state communities were no longer safe for escapees. Ten of thousands of people found refuge in Canada. But by then, historical accuracy requires us not to say that "the majority of America still allowed slavery." In that period most of America was free territory.

Mark said...

Great post today(Pride Goeth...).

But to pick at the bones of this slavery discussion just a little longer, it might be instructive to deal with similar times(as you noted). Lets take the singular year of 1793, when the law in Upper Canada took effect. Compare it to 1793 in the U.S. where Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, and enshrined it in the U.S. Constitution. At this point in time, these are two countries heading in opposite directions. One is denouncing slavery, the other is upholding it.

The fact that some U.S. states had laws against in this general era is admirable, but its also true that they largely condoned the 1793law and agreed to put it in the constitution. Its hard to say they were free states when a black person could have been plucked off the street at any time so long as an aggrieved slave owner could provide some proof of ownership (even in light of individual states' countervailing legal measures). That's the very reason the Underground Railroad existed...b/c the northern states weren't a true haven. As for #'s of slaves going to Canada in the early 1800's, its hard to guage, though there were certainly thousands.

What amazes me, is that even decades after slavery was completely abolished throughout the entire British empire, the so-called free states of the north agreed to the 1850 law on Fugitive Slaves. And if it wasn't for the Civil War, who knows how much later slavery would have continued ??

WRT other areas of Canada also enacting laws vs. slavery, its important to remember that in Canada , as compared to the U.S., the whole discussion of abolishment was a MUCH more academic affair. Slaves in Canada numbered in the very low thousands. Some provinces literally had a couple hundred. Compare that to the U.S. who had millions of slaves. The whole idea of having slaves in Canada was almost frowned upon, even in the days after the Rev'n.

J. L. Bell said...

I expected you might like the "Pride Goeth…" post, Mark. I had to prepare for a gathering of historical organizations, so I couldn't reply to your last comment right away.

Again, I think this analysis of the situation is one-sided. It says that in 1793 the U.S. and Canada were "heading in opposite directions." That interpretation rests on one law in Upper Canada alone, which actually preserved slavery for another generation. It ignores the Imperial Law of 1790 that confirmed Loyalists' ownership of slaves they had brought into other provinces of what would become Canada. In 1790 the single state of Vermont had more people and fewer slaves than Upper Canada had at the time of its first census in the 1800s.

In the next few decades several other states enacted laws to bar, end, or phase out slavery—a definite move in one direction. On the national level, however, the Missouri Compromise, the Mexican-American War, and the U.S. Congress's self-imposed rule against even discussing slavery moved in the other direction. It was because the country was moving in two directions that it eventually suffered a Civil War.

As for Canada, the next big legal steps affecting slavery there came from London, it appears: the end of the slave trade, the decision to enforce that, and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Did any provinces take internal steps before then?

I agree that it's much easier to end slavery in areas where it wasn't a big part of the economy to begin with. Vermont, the first part of North America to permanently abolish slavery, did so when it was a sparsely settled region seeking to break free from both the British Empire and the new U.S. of A.