America’s First Propaganda Coup

Monday, July 4th, 2016

The Declaration of Independence was America’s first propaganda coup, as Max Boot explains:

This [talk of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"] was designed to cast the colonialists’ cause not as a grubby dispute over levels of taxation but as an idealistic fight for freedom. This was a bit of a stretch given that Britain in the late 18th century was already one of the most liberal countries in the world with established democratic institutions both at home and abroad. The Founding Fathers, after all, had developed their ideas of self-government precisely because they were a mainstream product of the English political and educational system.

What the Declaration of Independence showed was that the rebels, far more than their Tory adversaries in Britain, had a proper appreciation of the power of “public opinion” — a word that first appeared in print, by a fateful coincidence, in the very year 1776 in the first volume of Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They understood that to prevail against the British Empire — the superpower of its day — it was not enough to fight on the field of battle; it was necessary to fight in the realm of ideas as well to influence public opinion at home and abroad in favor of the pro-independence cause.

The most radical colonialists had been doing just that for years. Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren had started a Committee of Correspondence in Boston in 1772 to make their case, an example that was soon emulated across the colonies. Thomas Paine was another propagandist extraordinaire; the publication of his pamphlet Common Sense in early 1776 prepared the way for the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin was yet another effective salesman for the Revolution — his political and propaganda work in France made it possible for the rebels to secure French help, which made all the difference.

The rebels were constantly engaging in what we would today call “spinning.” They managed to get their account of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 to Britain, addressed to the “Inhabitants of Great Britain,” a full two weeks before the official British dispatches arrived, thus helping to mold public opinion in their favor.

Ultimately this line of operations proved decisive. The British Empire could have continued fighting after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Lost armies could have been reconstituted from the vast resources of the empire. But it was not to be because Britain was a parliamentary democracy. On February 28, 1782, the House of Commons voted by a narrow margin to discontinue offensive operations. This forced the downfall of Lord North’s hardline Tory ministry and led to its replacement by Lord Rockingham’s more liberal Whigs, who were bent on concluding a peace treaty with their American cousins.

In a sense, February 28 should really be our Independence Day. But the propaganda coup of the Founding Fathers continues to resonate down through the centuries, turning July 4 into our national holy day (the origin of “holiday”).


  1. Rollory says:

    Thomas Hutchison’s Strictures on the Declaration of Independence is the single most important thing ever written about this document:

    It is not surprising that it is never, ever taught; nor will one EVER find a response to it from any of the people calling on the Declaration as an object of nearly-religious veneration. I have asked more than a few patriot-pundits for a rebuttal of Hutchison’s claims or evidence that what he was saying was false, or evidence that in light of the Strictures, the Declaration could be said to be truthful or valid. They have thus far been utterly unable to provide any such thing.

    The act of bringing this to light alone made Mencius Moldbug a net positive factor.

    The question of whether American independence was a good thing is an interesting one, but one cannot arrive at a truthful answer by ignoring relevant facts.

  2. Graham says:

    Well, I’m a Canadian and my country exists because some people didn’t want to join the rebellion, so FWIW.

    I sympathize with the rebels on some counts- yes, Britain was the most liberal country of the age [although that had serious limitations even compared to the government the early US set up] and yes the colonists were drawing on the British tradition in the first place. On the other hand, they actually were being taxed without representation in parliament, or by being taxed through their own assemblies, and their assemblies were under some threat to their operations and existence.

    But they were also objecting to taxation that was necessary mainly the pay for the war that had permanently freed the colonies from the French threat, and which had been fought and won at great expense almost wholly by the Royal Navy and British regular troops. If the mechanisms of taxation posed serious constitutional problems, the fact of the taxes was wholly reasonable and justified.

    But my chief concerns about the declaration have always been the clauses about the Indians and the Quebec Act. which basically amounted to, “we the people of the colonies are entitled to settle anywhere in British possessions, EVEN to the extent of stealing the land of the Indians who are fellow British subjects, and for the British to protect the Indians is inherently to oppress us”, and “we the people are entitled to object to the governmental arrangements of a wholly distinct British province, which is being governed according to its customs and public wishes, but we think it’s creepy”.

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