True History of the American Revolution

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

Mencius Moldbug slowly works his way toward explaining the shortest way to world peace. Along the way, he shares some revisionist thoughts from Sydney George Fisher’s True History of the American Revolution, written 100 years ago:

Here are some questions about the American Revolution for which you may find you have no good answer:

One: why do the American loyalists share a nickname with a British political party? Is this just a coincidence, or does it imply some kind of weird alliance? And what is on the other side of said alliance? If the loyalists are called Tories, why does no one call the Patriots Whigs?

Two: what on earth is the British strategy? Why do the redcoats seem to be spending so much time just hanging around in New York or Philadelphia? Valley Forge is literally twenty miles from Philly. Okay, I realize, it’s winter. But come on, it’s twenty miles. General Washington is starving in the snow out there. His troops are deserting by the score. And Lord Howe can’t send a couple of guys with muskets to go bring him in? Heck, it sounds like a well-phrased dinner invitation would probably have done the trick.

Three: if the Stamp Act was such an intolerable abuse, how did the British Empire have all these other colonies — Canada, Australia, yadda yadda — where everyone was so meek? Surely we can understand the idea that taxation without representation was the first step toward tyranny. So where is the tyranny? Where are Her Majesty’s concentration camps? Okay, there was the Boer War, I guess. But more generally, why is the history of America so different from that of the other colonies?

Four: why does no one outside America seem to resent these unfortunate events at all? I mean, the Revolution was a war. People got pretty violent on both sides. In some parts of the world, when people lose a war, they don’t feel that it was just God’s will. They feel that God would be much more satisfied if there was some payback. And they tend to transmit this belief to their offspring. In the American unpleasantness, a lot of people — loyalists — got kicked out of their homes. They had to leave with only a small travel bag. When this sort of thing happens in the Middle East, it’s remembered for the life of the known universe.

Those are some good questions. “One of the many neat things about Fisher’s history is that it was written when the British Empire was actually a going concern, not a shadowy boogeyman from the past,” Mencius notes, as he cites this passage:

The British government, only too glad to be rid of rebellious Puritans, Quakers, and Roman Catholics, willingly gave them liberal charters. This explains that freedom in many of the old charters which has surprised so many students of our colonial history. Some of these liberal instruments were granted by the Stuart kings, with the approval of their officials and courtiers, all of whom showed by almost every other act of their lives that they were the determined enemies of free parliaments and free representation of the people.

Connecticut, for example, obtained in 1662 from Charles II a charter which made the colony almost independent; and to-day there is no colony of the British empire that has so much freedom as Connecticut and Rhode Island always had, or as Massachusetts had down to 1685. Connecticut and Rhode Island elected their own legislatures and governors, and did not even have to send their laws to England for approval. No modern British colony elects its own governor; and, if it has a legislature elected by its people, the acts of that legislature can be vetoed by the home government. A community electing its own governor and enacting whatever laws it pleases is not a colony in the modern English meaning of the word. Connecticut and Rhode Island could not make treaties with foreign nations, but in other respects they were, as we would now say, semi-independent commonwealths under the protectorate or suzerainty of England.

England and America happily ignored this odd situation as long as France loomed as a major threat, but once France was kicked out of North America, the English sought to “remodel” the American colonies, and the American colonies sought to wriggle free entirely.

But the heart of the problem is that not all Americans are Whigs, and not all Englishmen are Tories. From Fisher:

The ablest men of the country were pitted against each other in continual debates, and colonial taxation was the leading topic of conversation among all classes. There were two main questions: Was the Stamp Act constitutional? and, If constitutional, was it expedient? It was the innings of a radical section of the Whigs, and, being favorable to liberalism and the colonies, they decided that the Stamp Act was not expedient. They accordingly repealed it within a year after its passage. But they felt quite sure, as did also the vast majority of Englishmen, that Parliament had a constitutional right to tax the colonies as it pleased, and so they passed what became known as the Declaratory Act, asserting the constitutional right of Parliament to bind the colonies “in all cases whatsoever;” and this is still the law of England.

The rejoicing over the repeal of the Stamp Act was displayed, we are told, in a most extraordinary manner, even in England. The ships in the Thames hoisted their colors and houses were illuminated. The colonists had apparently been able to hit a hard blow by the stoppage of trade. The rejoicing, however, as subsequent events showed, was not universal. It was the rejoicing of Whigs or of the particular ship-owners, merchants, and workingmen who expected relief from the restoration of the American trade. It was noisy and conspicuous. There must have been some exaggeration in the account of the sufferings from loss of trade. It is not improbable that Parliament had been stampeded by a worked-up excitement in its lobbies; for very soon it appeared that the great mass of Englishmen were unchanged in their opinion of proper colonial policy; and, as was discovered in later years, the stoppage of the American trade did not seriously injure the business or commercial interests of England.

But in America the rejoicing was, of course, universal. There were letters and addresses, thanksgivings in churches, the boycotting associations were instantly dissolved, trade resumed, homespun given to the poor, and the people felt proud of themselves and more independent than ever because they could compel England to repeal laws.

The colonists were certainly lucky in having chanced upon a Whig administration for their great appeal against taxation. It has often been said that both the Declaratory Act and the repeal of the Stamp Act were a combination of sound constitutional law and sound policy, and that if this same Whig line of conduct had been afterwards consistently followed, England would not have lost her American colonies. No doubt if such a Whig policy had been continued the colonies would have been retained in nominal dependence a few years longer. But such a policy would have left the colonies in their semi-independent condition without further remodelling or reform, with British sovereignty unestablished in them, and with a powerful party of the colonists elated by their victory over England. They would have gone on demanding more independence until they snapped the last string.

In fact, the Whig repeal of the Stamp Act advanced the colonies far on their road to independence. They had learned their power, learned what they could do by united action, and had beaten the British government in its chosen game. It was an impressive lesson. Consciously or unconsciously the rebel party among them was moved a step forward in that feeling for a distinct nationality which a naturally separated people can scarcely avoid.

Such a repeal, such a going backward and yielding to the rioting, threats, and compulsion of the colonists, was certainly not that “firm and consistent policy” which both then and now has been recommended as the true course in dealing with dependencies. The Tories condemned the repeal on this account, and in the course of the next ten or fifteen years ascribed to it the increasing coil of colonial entanglement.

As Mencius points out, “this is the very nub of the issue”:

What’s fascinating here is that we have two practical theories of how to deal with dependencies. One says that the most effective way to retain a dependency is to redress its grievances, tolerate its errors, and understand its complaints. The other says that the “true course” is a “firm and consistent policy.”

This is not a moral disagreement. This is a case of “is,” not of “ought.” Both parties in England agree — or, at least, appear to agree — on the goal: American colonies that acknowledge the authority of Parliament. The Whigs think the most effective means to this end is to persuade America that England is really their friend, by making concessions when concessions are demanded. The Tories think the most effective means to this end is to use firm and consistent force, to show the Americans that they have no alternative.

After the war, the Whig theory became generally accepted in Britain. This answers question four: why the British have no hard feelings. They have no hard feelings because they believe the war resulted from a British mistake.

Here’s “the funny thing”:

There’s a natural alliance between the American patriot party and the British Whigs. They are both, after all, Whigs. You’d expect some solidarity. Why don’t the British Whigs just endorse the American rebels?

Because it’s not 2008, is why. In the 21st century, encouraging an enemy in arms against your own government is normal politics. The word treason is almost funny. In the 18th, it was a different matter:

The doctrine, exclusively American in its origin, that rebels were merely men in arms fighting for an idea, mistaken or otherwise, who, when once subdued, were to be allowed to go their way like paroled prisoners of war, had not yet gained ground. Rebellion was at that time a more serious thing than it has since become under the American doctrine of the right of revolution. Most of the colonists could remember the slaughter and beheading inflicted in England on the rebels under the Pretender of 1745. The frightful hanging, torturing, and transportation of men, women, and even children, for such rebellions as that of Monmouth, were by no means yet forgotten. There was not a colonist who had not heard descriptions of London after a rebellion, with the bloody arms and hindquarters of rebels hung about like butchers’ meat, the ghastly heads rotting and stinking for months on the poles at Temple Bar and on London Bridge, with the hair gradually falling off the grinning skulls, as the people passed them day by day.

If the Whigs in Parliament had openly sided with the rebels, dreams of the Shortest-Way would have danced in the eyes of the Tories. The pro-American stance taken by the likes of Burke (who later redeemed himself with the Reflections, but was always a Whig) was in fact the most effective way for a British politician to support the rebels: not on the grounds that they deserve independence, but on the grounds that conciliation is the most effective way to prevent it, as military coercion cannot possibly work. (Does this sound at all familiar?)

We see here also why the American patriots never described themselves as Whigs, and nor did their friends in Britain. If we think of the revolutionaries as Whigs, we are tempted to ask who is in the driver’s seat — the ragtag armies and mobs in America, or the British intellectuals who encouraged their rebellion. We are tempted to see the revolution as a continuation of British politics by other means — much as our Republicans and Democrats of today might find themselves backing opposing armies in some insignificant country halfway around the world. (Obviously, this could never happen, but it would be very disturbing.)
I am neither a specialist in the period, nor a historian at all. So I will simply point out one undisputed fact in the matter, which is that two of the leading British generals, Howe and Cornwallis, were Whigs — in fact, Whig MPs.

And no one seems to care.

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