July 04, 2004

Happy Fourth of July

Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolutionary War. Interestingly, it has become popular in some circles, by which I mean some history professors and academics, to refer to the war between the colonies and the British as the War for American Independence. Now, when you first hear it, sounds the same, right? I love the word independence, it means all sorts of great things. But this is actually a dig at the entire concept of the American Revolution.

Those theorists behind the distinction argue something like this. The war was a conflict for home rule, to wrest control from England and put it in American hands. It was not, they contend, a substantive revolution because the economic and social dynamics remained largely the same. Of course, you have to be extremely narrow and focused on today's political developments to really buy into this.

It's become very popular to focus on the plight of disaffected groups within society - Indians, women, black people, the poor, national minorities, and so forth. Now don't get me wrong, it's important that we learn the shortcomings and bigotry of history because we must be sure to never repeat them, but we can't learn more about the minor groups of history than the actual movers and shakers of history. Sure, it's not fair - I agree, it should be merit-based, not based on arbitrary social acceptance - but these are the people that won.

It would be like learning about evolution and focusing almost exclusively on the extinct species. Sure, it really helps to get a full picture of what you're dealing with, but without seeing the winners of evolution or the winners of history, you're always only going to see less than half the whole picture. We should learn about the Kings and sexists and racists of history, how they ran the world, their countries and their lives, then learn how various minor groups lived in this framework.

To use another analogy, it's like building a cake out of just pink icing, no cake mix, no bread, no ice cream, no white or blue icing. Sure, maybe it's exciting - everybody wants to eat the rose - but in the end you've just got a big lump of mush because you skipped the damned foundation. You need that base, even if you find it boring, because there's no context otherwise.

The result of this new academic perspective on the Revolutionary War likes to recast that conflict because similar people held power in both circumstances - white, male, mostly mature, landowners, some slaveowners, all Protestants (and Deists). This social- and minority-focused view of history is extremely ill-suited to answer a fundamentally political question. Surprise, social historians don't know a damned thing about politics except how it kind of relates to social history.

The country went from a limited (I can't say constitutional when they STILL have no written English constitution outside the Magna Carta) monarchy, with numerous abuses, little trial protections, and a legally explicit second-class status for the American colonists to the world's premiere written Enlightenment liberal-republican constitution. We had rights, limits, a federalist structure, and most importantly - a President. The truly unprecedented nature of our choice is no longer evident to those of us living today. Back then, this was quite a shock to most of the world.

Our founders truly changed world history. Not only did we set in motion a chain of events that helped topple the British Empire, but we actually contributed to the end of old imperialism itself - and destroyed the mercantilist schemes of Europe. This inspired countless subsequent revolutions and governments, especially the French Revolution.

The American Revolution changed political thought, proved the legitimacy of republican government for large, prosperous states, and enshrined the ideals of the Enlightenment into a beautifully written constitution. Our Declaration of Independence was a masterpiece of political science, and the separation of powers idea is emulated in countries everywhere today - indeed one of the first Enlightenment definitions of tyranny was a state that did NOT separate the executive and legislative powers.

I could go on and on even longer than I have already, but it should be quite clear that the American Revolution was perhaps the single most important war in terms of political change in the world.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haiti also used the American Revolution as a justification (and inspiration) for its own. Americans changed politically and socially following the Seven Years' War, and drastically so after Lexington in 1775.


July 04, 2004 7:15 PM  

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