The term ‘revolution’ conjures up visions of death and destruction in a swirl of grand and beautiful ideas. It is never the case that every person in a country supports the idea of a revolution, because they are by nature shattering, as they overturn everything that used to be.
One needs to be prepared to live a totally new way. The American Revolution has been called the American War of Independence as well. The dual reference is not only relevant but also interesting, because it could be proof of it’s lacking something that makes it a revolution. This duality is popularly accepted, but of course, most Americans would want the war to be referred to in as grand a way as possible, thus the sobriquet ‘revolution.’ Two of the principal changes in the new American constitutional order were the absence of a monarchy and a written constitution, but there were still two levels of a legislative assembly, no vote for women and a limited franchise for men, and slavery.
The term ‘equality’ means being treated the same as everyone else regardless of what, where and when, while ‘economic prosperity’ refers to the creation of wealth. The former is more philosophical, while the latter is a statement of fact. One cannot feel or touch equality, but one can easily recognize its presence or absence, while you can feel or touch economic prosperity, which appears in the form of objects, structures and money. It will be argued here that the American Revolution was neither for equality or economic growth, but for independence, which is the basic requirement for either of them to be fully realized. Arguments for each will be examined in turn.
The thirteen colonies were part of the British Empire and one could argue that they had to enjoy being part of it, because it was the most powerful political force in the XVIIIth Century. The nature of colonies in the United Kingdom is such that they are directly under the Crown and are managed on the Crown’s behalf by the government, thus the colonists are not represented by anyone.
Having colonies is about prestige, wealth and power, because they make you the envy of many, they generate consumable goods and resources, and are proof that you have extended your domain across great expanses of space. Being close to the Crown means that the Crown becomes highly symbolic and important, thus any of its acts, good or bad, are highly visible in the colonies. The British king during this time was George III, who suffered from porphyria, but during the XVIIIth Century, this was perceived as some kind of madness. Being thought of as mad reduces the power and respectability of decisions, thus the Crown, and by association the United Kingdom, became enfeebled. This image can be argued as transforming to a desire to distance oneself from it. Colonies are physically distant from the centre. This distance can transform into difference as one becomes close or attached to what is local, which can be argued as one of the pillars of identity. One is what others are not. The colonists despite descending from British stock soon became something else, and this feeling soon needed to be expressed.
The French and Indian War of 1754-1763 led to the creation of debts in the United Kingdom, and in such cases, although they might not have participated in its making, colonies have felt the brunt of its relief as they are requested to help pay it off through such laws as the Revenue Act (or Sugar Act) of 1764. The colonists wanted to expand, but the Crown resisted their attempts, as they feared a war with indigenous American nations on whose lands the colonists would have to encroach. This situation was made worse by various acts passed in Westminster to respond to various domestic crises, such as the Quartering and Stamp Acts of 1765, which forced colonists to pay for part of the stay of British troops and for stamps necessary for newspapers and legal documents.1 The latter led to the first use of the term ‘taxation without representation,’ because they claimed that British parliament had no power to tax them, as there were no colonists representatives in Westminster.
The debate ended with the abolishment of the Stamp Act in 1766, but the damage had been done and the first great idea had been spoken. Sadly, anger at the perceived success of the colonists led to the Townshend Acts of 1767 that placed duties on items, such as tea and glass, imported into the colonies.2 Pressure again led to their being abolished in 1770 except for the one on tea, whose continued presence led to the smuggling of tea and then the Tea Act of 1773 to combat it. Protests developed again, and these became known as the Boston Tea Party resulting in the dumping of British tea in the water. The final straw were a series of acts in 1774 reducing the power of local legislatures to the advantage of the governor’s. But, even at this time, a moment existed to pull back from war as many colonists still wanted to remain as part of the United Kingdom, but there was no compromise forthcoming from Westminster, which is understandable, as it felt that its legitimate legislative power was being slighted and this needed to be redressed.
The idea of equality applies to all people. One cannot judge or select a group of people, based on arbitrary criteria, to be secondary citizens or humans and deny them the respect that is due to them. The allowance of slavery to exist after the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ was a travesty. It is argued here that its continued institutional and economic presence reduces the notion of equality to a tool in the hands of a few who have a grievance against someone else.3 The Slave trade had been abolished in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833 in the United Kingdom, but this would occur in the United States in 1865 following a violent and divisive civil war whose ramifications were felt long after it had ended.
It is true that slavery was still legal in the United Kingdom, but one almost never saw a slave in the British Isles, and that statements made to slaves promising them freedom if they fought for the British side were arguably empty as the institution was only starting to be abolished in the early XIXth Century, over 20 years after the end of the war. The French Revolution of 1789 did make the great leap recognizing that slavery could not co-exist with the liberty and equality of all. They had the courage to radically alter the social and economic landscape
As previously mentioned, one of the main reasons to have colonies is that they are a source of wealth. They produce cheap goods on which the mother country has an accepted monopoly to obtain for consumption, so a system of trade is set up mostly to the benefit of the latter, but as the colony is technically part of the latter, the wealth should trickle back down. In many cases, it might not, because the mother country is the dominant partner in the relationship. Such a fact means that the colony’s economic prospects are limited and to the service of another, which can be argued as leading to the institutionalization of poverty.
There are various means to extract wealth from a colony. Some have been mentioned, as they became reasons for rebelling against the British Crown. These acts instituted taxes and duties that were deposited in the Crown treasury. One of which was the Revenue (or Sugar) Act of 1764 that placed a duty on any colonial import of non-British molasses used in the making of rum, which meant restricting the choice of goods to only British ones and also reducing the profits of a regularly profitable industry. Another example, but more insidious, was the Tea Act of 1773, which was proposed by the East India Company that had extensive trade rights, one of which was on the export of tea to the colonies.
The smuggling of tea hurt it financially, and seeking redress with the Crown, as most of these companies did in such instances, it requested a law permitting it to sell tea at a lower price.3 This was beyond acceptable as the act manipulated terms of trade to the benefit of one party. One can argue that as the price was lower, this would benefit the consumer, but there are usually bigger issues at stake, although basic economic ones might play into them. The result was unsurprisingly violent.
The movement of people to new lands is a constant fact of human society. People migrate for a myriad of reasons, but we need only to touch on one of them, that of the search for new opportunities, which so often clashes with the needs of a country to be friendly with its neighbours. In the case of colonies or ‘discovered’ lands, the original inhabitants were pushed aside and not termed as human as they were different. The colonists migrating have been called pioneers as they opened up ‘new’ lands to their country, but these were not empty lands. People lived on them. They were the Cheyenne, Sioux, Cherokee, Apache,….
They were still powerful enough to destabilize and destroy the nascent British colonies. Soon after the French were defeated in 1763, migration started westwards. The unwanted migrants were killed in their hundreds as they were correctly seen as invaders. To avoid more deaths and ensure security, the Proclamation of 1763 halted migration beyond the Appalachian Mountains.4 This was greeted with anger as the migrants hoped to become wealthy by developing land that was ‘open’ and deemed to lack a purchase cost, as it was not owned by any state that they recognized. There was an expectation that people could move when and where they choose, which is a totally acceptable right, but it does not exist in the void. One moves from one place to another. Both are occupied. Such a naïve view of the world could only lead to death, which is deplorable, but understandable.
The occupation of space precludes the understanding of that space as a legitimate source of wealth for the migrant. It is inexcusable to enter into someone else’s land, start using it and then decry a retributive act. Both the colonists and imperial power base the notion of colonization on the denial of rights to the indigenous inhabitants, although this is more extreme in the case of the former, because they want more, and it can only be taken from the indigenous population.5 If one looked into the future for proof, one can only seethe with anger and sadness at the manner in which many American indigenous populations were herded unto poorly developed and remote reservations.
The issues of equality and economic prosperity were not the principal reasons for the war of 1775-83, which could be argued to have been a rejection of an order that was no longer respected as the legitimate authority. They were desired aims or benefits. Equality and economic growth follow independence.
It should not be forgotten that colonies are treated as resources to be used to the benefit of the mother country, which conquered it. Many of the laws passed by the British parliament were intended to ensure or impose the respect of British authority, but no law is worthy of being obeyed unless it earns the respect of those whom it applies to, which means treating them as human beings. On this point, the American colonists were right.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States 1492 to Present. 3rd ed. Pearson Education Ltd. 2003.
- Weintraub, Stanley. Iron Tears: America’s Battle for Freedom, Britain’s Quagmire: 1776-1783. Free Press, 2005.
- Hibbert, Christopher. Redcoats & Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes. Norton, 1990.
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