In Defense of the American Revolution

The economic historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes an informed defense of the American Revolution. Here’s the opening:

It has become de rigueur, even among libertarians and classical liberals, to denigrate the benefits of the American Revolution. Thus, libertarian Bryan Caplan writes:  “Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?… [W]hen you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it’s hard to get a decent answer. In fact, with 20/20 hindsight, independence had two massive anti-libertarian consequences: It removed the last real check on American aggression against the Indians, and allowed American slavery to avoid earlier—and peaceful—abolition.”1 One can also find such challenges reflected in recent mainstream writing, both popular and scholarly.

In fact, the American Revolution, despite all its obvious costs and excesses, brought about enormous net benefits not just for citizens of the newly independent United States but also, over the long run, for people across the globe. Speculations that, without the American Revolution, the treatment of the indigenous population would have been more just or that slavery would have been abolished earlier display extreme historical naivety. Indeed, a far stronger case can be made that without the American Revolution, the condition of Native Americans would have been no better, the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies would have been significantly delayed, and the condition of European colonists throughout the British empire, not just those in what became the United States, would have been worse than otherwise.


America, its constitution, and its very existence is a giant mess of white supremacy, privilege, and cisgender patriarchy.

Theslavery, excuse me, the electoral college was designed to protect the KKK and Jefferson Davis crowd. It is still protecting them, just in its latest iteration (Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Donald Trump)

The Senate exists for the exact same reason. To allow white supremacists to dominate over the brown and woke masses. Reason #5324 why America should not exist.

Only as a Democratic Socialist Republic will we finally be free. And once Trump is safely behind bars.

Huh? The Constitution was written well before Jefferson Davis was born or the KKK formed. And the "small state" protections of the Constitution applied mainly to the several New England states-- where slavery was already abolished.

The linear concept of time is itself a social construct and a form of white cisgender male privilege.

Happy Independence Day!

Cisgender, aka 99.99 percent of the population. But you go ahead and do you. Enjoy your bubble.

I think he's kidding.

Haha. Confirmed for troll parody handle.

Happy 4th my fellow Americans!

This butcher got cucked by the milkman. Guess the wife prefers heavy cream over a small package of Jimmy Johns.

Or, we would have ended up like the Canadians, a rational nation, a reliable ally, and “O Canada” is a very nice national Anthem

And have to play soccer baseball in primary school? No thank you.

Canada is an awkward, vestigial territory left over by the retreating French and British empires. It's not really a "rational nation." More like a liberal-voting US suburb.

Canadian politicians and voters put Justin Trudeau in the prime minister's chair. Trudeau's work history consisted of 7 years as a high school teacher (his principal subject was drama). This was followed by 5 years as a serial grad school dropout 'ere Liberal Party sachems gifted him a seat in Parliament at the age of 36. How rational is that?

What's interesting about Canada is the distortions in the country's national politics English Canadians have been willing to lie down for in an assiduous effort to keep Quebec in the fold. (What's interesting about French Canadians is the degree to which local particularism hasn't practical objects beyond flipping the bird at English Canadians; what's also interesting is how political particularism seems to have been stoked by an exercise in cultural autophagy after 1960).

It would be agreeable if English Canadians had enough spark in them to kick Quebec to the curb; defend their liberties, culture and society against both Muslim immigrants and against their own repellent ruling class (see 'human rights tribunals'); and quit investing in soft-power globaloney. Don't expect to see it.

Re: ...allowed American slavery to avoid earlier—and peaceful—abolition.”

Probably not. If Britain moved to abolish slavery in the 1830s, the slave colonies of the American south would probably have rebelled.

There's two authors who deal with alternative history fiction, one, forget his name, says the North and South would be bitter enemies, while the other says they would have formed a confederation.

If you study history you'd see that the South-leaning presidents, like Pierce, wanted to annex Cuba and indeed conquer all of Mexico (like France tried to) to make it slave territory. So if the South had "won" arguably you'd have Central and South America as parts of the US South slave empire. What would TR (not the president, the commentator) say about Brazil being part of the US South?!

Bonus trivia: McPherson's tome on the US Civil War is very good. He does put a bit too much emphasis on the 'moral' aspect of the US Civil war, and downplays that the two regions went to war for economic reasons as well, but it's well written. Going through the book you'll see that the South at various points almost won the war, by getting Northern voters to despair of war, by almost --hence Gettysburg--getting the UK to recognize the US South (as de facto they did of the Greeks when they fought the Turks for independence in the 1820s), and due to incompetent Northern generals like Burnside, McClelland, Hooker, but pace Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and the underrated Rosecrans (who won brilliantly except for the nervous breakdown at Chickamunga; it's almost like Rosecrans was a time traveler who realized the limitations of 19th century warfare and tried to win with such hindsight).

Certainly the US Civil war was not as much of a slam-dunk as the Allied victory over the Axis was in WWII.

Bonus trivia II: the USSR in WWII suffered roughly the same casualty rate in deaths, about 20% or so of combatants, as did the warring sides in the US Civil War. So the WWII Russians essentially learned nothing in the 80 years since the US Civil war and the 90 years since the equally brutal Crimean war. Compare to the Allied and Axis forces, which suffered about half that casualty rate.

Certainly the US Civil war was not as much of a slam-dunk as the Allied victory over the Axis was in WWII

Yeah, imagine Grant with air power!

"What would TR (not the president, the commentator) say about Brazil being part of the US South?!"

It is!

JonFraz - July 4, 2018 at 12:14 pm 7

Probably not. If Britain moved to abolish slavery in the 1830s, the slave colonies of the American south would probably have rebelled.

Arguably they did. Something happened to make the previously pro-British southern planters rebel. Somerset v Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499 was in, obviously, 1772.

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

The Court found no slavery in the Common Law. Was there any positive law making people slaves in the British colonies? Abolition was inevitable.

The theory that the American Revolution was somehow about slavery due to some obscure court case that had no applicability outside England proper has been debunked by reputable historians. Not everything in American history was about slavery and race. A good deal of things were-- but not everything

Re: Abolition was inevitable.

Well very little is 100% inevitable: randomness has a place in human affairs, or as the ancients said Fortuna Regnet omnia.
However given the pace of technological change and the particulars of US geography abolition was very nearly inevitable. That's why the slave states despite getting their way in Congress and at the Supreme Court in almost everything and despite presidents favorable to them finally seceded. They saw the handwriting on the wall. Back in 1776 however a great many Southerners actually knew that slavery would someday die-- and they hoped that it would. At that point in history slavery was not all that profitable. The cotton gin and the opening of the extensive "black belt" lands, perfect for cotton production, gave slavery the equivalent of a strong dose of meth and it became, for a while, very lucrative. Hence it ceased to be seen by those who benefited as a necessary but dying evil and instead was celebrated as a positive good.

What something is about isn’t singular and can change during its existence. Slavery may not have been an important factor at the start, but it certainly became a relevant factor during it.

The American Revolution never ended, as even today Americans are divided on whether equality or property rights should have priority: the Declaration of Independence said equality while the Constitution said property rights. The pendulum swings. Which side of the pendulum one prefers depends on which side one benefits the most. The pendulum swings because there is no absolute: it's only extremists who insist that the pendulum be stopped on their preferred side. Being the cradle Episcopalean that I am, I prefer moderation, which results in a shorter swing of the pendulum and relative balance.

Declaration of Independence said equality opportunity, the leftists want equality of results - two different and opposing thoughts.

The equality in the Declaration is equality of unalienable Rights, which includes the right to acquire and possess property. For example, the contemporaneous Virginia Declaration of Rights, which Jefferson drew from, includes the phrase, "That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights...; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." So, the "enjoyment of life and liberty" includes property rights.

Can one find any reference in America's founding documents to equality of outcomes, incomes, or cross-population statistics?

The party of Lincoln and equality (liberty) has become the party of property rights (protection of entrenched interests). Ho hum. So-called libertarians are funded by entrenched interests who wish to protect their interests not promote equality (i.e., liberty). Ho hum. Over at Scott Sumner's blog I complimented him for pointing out that the economy needs help the most when it appears to need it the least. He was offended, calling my compliment "nonsense". Really? Isn't it Sumner who has written that contractionary/deflationary monetary policy contributed to and greatly exacerbated the financial crises of 1929 and 2008? Of course, my compliment pointed out Sumner's difference with his Austrian friends who promote depression economics. What are friends for? Economics is so muddled that up is down, down is up, that lower interest rates deflate the economy and higher interest rates expand the economy. The successful politician today convinces the public that there's no objective truth, that truth is what the politician says it is. The top economic advisor to Trump stated last week that the deficit "is" falling, and "is" falling rapidly. But it's going up, not down, and up both absolutely and as a share of GDP. The administration later clarified that what he (Lawrence Kudlow) meant is that the deficit "is" coming down sometime in the future. And I suppose it "is". We have lost our way, economists for sure.

You got one thing correct (stopped clock . . .). Academics have no idea about how the real world functions. Ergo, if you contradict their nonsense, they cry "nonsense."

Otherwise, will you guys seize our property before or after you abolish law enforcement?

FYI - the Declaration and Constitution did not give humanity unalienable rights. The Declaration listed them as reasons for declaring independence from England. The Constitution/Bill of Rights limited government power/discretion to infringe unalienable rights, including the right to bear arms.

After all, the US has a written Constitution, even though we have judges that refuse to follow it. Trump is remedying that.

I have a somewhat mischievous question -

How many readers here feel the Independence day should have been commemorated on Sep 3rd? As that was the day of the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, marking the end of hostilities and Britain's assent to independence of its colonies.

America appears unique among countries in counting its days of independence from the day of signing of the Declaration of Independence.

India signed its "Declaration of Independence" on 26th Jan, 1930. Yet the Independence day is commemorated on 15th Aug - the day of the complete transfer of power from British to Indian hands.

No, America became an independent nation on that date. It took another 7 years for G.B. to finally accept that fact, but the U.S.A. officially began on July 4, 1776.

Ziel is correct. The Declaration does not merely proclaim independence. It lays out a philosophy of natural rights ("Laws of Nature and of Nature's God") that, in turn, justifies self-government. Under that philosophy, America became independent immediately upon the Declaration's signing: "...these united Colonies *are*, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States" (emphasis added).

shrikanthk: "America appears unique among countries..." Indeed, America's natural rights founding is the root of American Exceptionalism.

ziel: "America became *an* independent nation"

Better question: given that the phrase is "Free and Independent *States*" rather than "*a* Free and Independent *State*", did the Declaration's signers view themselves as 13 independent states, a confederation or union of 13 states, or something else? They also refer to themselves as "Representatives of the united States of America" with "united" conspicuously not capitalized. Doesn't that suggest that they viewed themselves as 13 states, united in some manner, but ultimately independent? Of course, that is deeply connected to the Electoral College, Senate's equal-representation structure, and separation of federal and state powers.

Doesn't that suggest that they viewed themselves as 13 states, united in some manner, but ultimately independent?

The failure of the Articles of Confederation changed a lot of minds about how well that was going to work. .

Actually, it’s July 2. From Wikipedia: “During the American Revolution, the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain in 1776 actually occurred on July 2, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence that had been proposed in June by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia declaring the United States independent ...”

So my vote is July 2. We’re running late for the party.

Were native americans and descendants of slaves worse off in (non-revolutionary) Canada than in (post-revolutionary) U.S. ? Considering that de jure and de facto segregation lasted so long in the U.S. , I doubt that .

Without a United States, there wouldn't be a Canada to be not the United States. Britain would not have stopped slavery in the South for the same reason that it didn't stop buying the products of slavery from the US after abolishing the slave trade; it needed the cotton. Without the US separating itself, Canada's provinces would have faced all of the same problems with the Fugitive Slave Act, etc., as the northern US states.

Britain needed Caribbean sugar too. But it abolished the slave trade and then slavery itself in the areas under its control. "King cotton" failed to induce British support for the south in the civil war; it just wasn't that important; most value added was in Lancashire mills, not the fields of Alabama.

At the end of the day, the sugar/tobacco/cotton agricultural nexus was eclipsed by the much stronger textile/coal/steel industrial nexus. In the US this just took 50 more years compared to Britain.

It is reasonably argued that a failed civil war would have reduce the rate of US industrialisation, and make the resultant US/British polity less industrial than it was in 1810. But the balance of population tilts even further against the slavers; if adding Free States in the west was bad for the South; how much the worse to add free millions in Britain and "Canada" who had nothing but contempt for slavery?

Its distasteful to consider, given the sacrifices of the Union in doing a fundamentally decent thing, but I still think abolition would have come peacefully though or the subsequent civil war would have been much shorter; a southern revolt might be considered feasible against the union. But against the Union AND Great Britain near the height of its powers? Nawh. Richmond by Christmas.

Consider reading the linked article which is the subject of this piece, as he addresses that question in it.

Without the Revolution the USA would suffer under the worse crony capitalism, The British East India Company. They were worse combination of greed and incompetence. They had managed to get control of India so they could loot the place yet managed to drive their company into bankruptcy and then using their buddies in the British Parliament were allowed to bring tea into the US without paying taxes. With that advantage they would have driven US business out of business and try to turn the US population into serfs in their own land.

Imagine present day Wall Street with armies and navies

Wall street has an army and a navy and you pay for them.

EIC was unpleasant and regressive, but I don't see their model of tax farming and cotton price repression working in the US at all. The equivalent would be things like the early "companies" that settled Virginia; they had already been tried and didn't endure.

Once EIC overplayed their hand, they were busted by the British parliament.

The American Revolution was but one of a sequence of violent events precipitated by the Reformation. The Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the War Between the States were all conflicts that pitted Puritan/Protestants against Catholics. Certainly, in those many years, there was more death and destruction than in anything the Communists did.

MT, God, you're wrong again. So wrong on the facts, just look at Wikipedia. Guess I shouldn't be responding. You're just a Civil War troll.

The truth about the American regime:

Reason 1,888 for why Brazil is a sh*thole:

Lots of Brazil Provinces freed their slaves before 1888. Brazil's last Emperor freed ALL his slaves way before 1888. So did the intelectual leader of the Revolution that overthrew him. Slavery is antithetical to Brazilian values, yet it was the very foundation of America. Even today, the Confederacy is widely praised in America.

Would the British Sovereign have bought the Louisiana Purchase--or would one of the colonies (Virginia???) bought it. I doubt it. Perhaps there would have been some sort of incursion into some (or even most) of the territory after the defeat of Napoleon but that was in 1814 long after the purchase and who knows would have happened to the area during this time. So the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries would have least been uncertain but for the success of the American Revolution.

I wonder how much the British would have paid Napoleon for it.

Agreed it would not be brought.

I think Louisiana would simply have been conquered by British / US forces during the Napoleonic wars.

I doubt it would have been offered to the British.

Counterfactual history would suggest the North American continent would have been a battleground for European colonial powers: England, France and Spain.

How did the Spanish, British and French colonies in South America do?

I always love those “What If” questions! My first thought is that the US would have created a massive engine for furthering the mischief of the British Empire. I’m not sure how you differentiate the slavery here and that suffered by India, Middle East and elsewhere well into the 20th century. Ghandi might beg to differ about the relative suffering caused by the different forms , not to mention the chaos sewn in the Middle East by British domination for the sake of oil supplies.

It would be interesting to see how or if WWI and WWII would have played out. The US, being late to the show in both affairs, would have been a massive counterbalance to German aggression on the continent. I’m thinking this would have prevented Germany from starting WWI in the first place over the misunderstanding caused by the Duke’s demise. If not, the war would have ended much sooner and the draconian terms of Versailles probably would have been avoided, thereby probably avoiding WWII.

Let’s also not forget that the Bolshevik Revolution might have petered out. Lenin was financed by the Germans in order to undermine the Russians, which he proceeded to do. Without that help, we could possibly have avoided the little Communist experiment and the multiple wars waged by the US to stop the dominoes from falling.

All of these speculations are in isolation. My guess is the abuse of increased power of Britain with America as a resource would have led to some other equally monstrous outcome. Let’s face it, Britain was all about world domination and America would have provided a huge tailwind. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Gandhi (not Ghandi!) can kvetch all he wants, and he had some valid complaints, but his revolution led India into a 45-year period where per capita income only doubled, one of the slowest growth rates in the world. It was the mother of all growth recessions.

Since the BJP took over from his Congress Party, India has done fine.

I'm not sure I would characterize what I've seen on my trips to India as "fine", but you make a very valid point. It's a very complex multi-cultural nation that doesn't lend itself easily to change. The British, of course, took advantage of those characteristics as part of their domination. When Gandhi took over, not much happened in the way of progress. I don't think progress in the Western sense of the word was a primary objective of his and, without British oversight, their institutions began to lapse back to their original state. I think the British model of treating its colonial subjects as subservient left a leadership vacuum after their departure. Regardless, I love the people there, so I hope they continue to overcome their past and current difficulties.

They are fun, aren't they?

It's an Anglophone wet dream to consider how a US industrial workhorse strapped to British imperial policy would play out, but I'm not sure it's all that important for the 19th century.

Things might actually be a little less "evil", but not as good or prosperous for Americans. Slavery is peacefully abolished a bit later than historical, but peacefully or with a limit southern revolt. The Indian tribes still mostly get it in the neck through demographics, but the more organised ones make reasonably effective settlements with the Crown (model of Indian and African tribes and NZ Maoris). Maybe Spain might get off a bit more lightly: Britain has slight interests in Texas/California or the Philippines and Spain isn't stupid enough to start a fight. Alaska might not be purchased. India...happens anyway. Africa... might be less colonialism as the US "soaks up" a great deal of British migration. Same for NZ and Australia; these are now very much second choices for immigrants.

I think the 20th century might play very differently though. Even if the US is not-quite-as-historically powerful, and is now a UK Dominion like Canada (i.e. functionally self-governing). It may well have mitigated the great tragedies of the century (Both world wars...and without them the October Revolution?). The dream scenario is that "Pax Britannica" continues throughout the 20th century until the rise of China rather than unravelling in 1914.

In the 19th century, I’m thinking the Mexican American and Spanish American wars would have played out quite differently. If so, the question of the “acquisition” of the US Southwest would look differently. Similarly, the picture in Cuba and the Philippines would have looked different. Given that the British were still full throttle on empire building, we may have landed in the same place, but less likely that Cuba would have evolved the same way due to later events in the 20th century. I think the big question is how Britain would have utilized North American resources in its empire building. Finally, I’m not sure that Britain would have had the same outlook on the slavery question. Given the resistance in the South on the issue, the question is whether they would have had an accommodation of some sorts. It was an evil institution that was destined to die either way, but there may have been less violence involved since the question of maintaining a union would not have been a central focus of debate.

The success of the American revolution was a huge setback for hereditary rule, the dominant form of political organization among Europeans for a millennium. It was so successful, indeed, that few seem to be able to remember what it was about anymore.

Agreed, unless your name is Bush or Clinton.

Great article. I searched for more of Jeff Hummel's writings and reached one where he argues that a US government default is inevitable. Now I don't know whether to raise his status or not.

Well, here is Winston Churchill speaking on July 4, 1918 (in the last months of World War One) about the American Revolution:

“The Declaration of Independence is not only an American document. It follows on Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title-deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking people are founded. By it we lost an Empire, but by it we also preserved an Empire. By applying its principles and learning its lesson we have maintained our communion with the powerful Commonwealths our children have established beyond the seas…We therefore join in perfect sincerity and simplicity with our American kith and kin in celebrating the auspicious and glorious anniversary of their nationhood.”

Do you think the way that Britain handled Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were uninfluenced by its bitter experiences with America?

Do you think South America would have fought for independence when it did if the American colonies had not broken with Britain?

Are you willing to consider that the reform movements in Britain in the 19th century were influenced by the experience of the American Revolution?

Before America, just how many countries were republics? Had written constitutions? Had a broad-based vote?

Big thanks to the United States for... discovering the republican form of government?

These are all good secondary "good" effects that do need to be considered. It is entirely possible US independence may have been good for human freedom overall, but bad for Amerindians and black slaves.

Anglosphere reform would have happened anyway, but as Churchill said, it really helped it along.

Wow, I'm actually surprised by Mr. Caplan's low quality quote on the American Revolution.

Maybe the When, Who and How was not as important. But the What (enlightenment put in charge) and where (far far away from European powers) certainly was.

If this experiment were not to be taking place in that safe space (unknown continent), thousands of miles away from England, surrounded by vast, fertile land of defenseless indigenous people (sorry!), the outcome might have been drastically different. Just look at how much France failed at liberalism (and how this failure's pinnacle in the form of Napoleon instilled long lasting anti-liberal views in much of central/eastern Europe).

And without that outcome, many of the illiberal regimes in Europe would have felt a lot less pressure to reform and accommodate. 1848's revolutionaries only had two options: persecution or fleeing. Thanks to that experiment they got a third one: fleeing *and trying out their social improvement schemes*.

Things like Napoleon would have happened without the US, things like the industrialization in England, France and Germany as well. But what depository of right minded wealth in the world would have been available to defend Britain in 1940?

Europe would have looked drastically different by 1900 already. Just think about the millions of Europeans who - in our universe - left freely by then but - in the non-American-Revolution-universe would have been stuck.

So: Happy Birthday, America!

But what depository of right minded wealth in the world would have been available to defend Britain in 1940?

The question should be., "whether WWI would have taken place if the all of NA was available by Britain for its defense against Germany?" It seems unlikely Germany would have been as cavalier to start a war with Britain over the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand (though I'm sure he was a great guy!) in defense of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In any event, even if they were so foolish, all of NA would have been involved in the war from the beginning, unlike the actual US late-stage involvement due to its neutrality until the Zimmerman Wire. This would probably have ended the war quickly and precluded the disastrous Versailles Treaty that led to WWII in the first place. The Bolshevik Revolution and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire into present day Middle East fiefdoms would also have been far less likely. Maybe the real question would have been whether something even more disastrous would have occurred due to the more powerful presence of Britain on the world stage that was inclined to empire building in the first place. As we've found out, colonialism doesn't end well and Britain would certainly have been a more formidable force to further its ambitions.

A good article but very limited in scope. I think the big question is whether the French monarchy would have been overthrown; if so, when; and would it have looked anything remotely like the French Revolution in our history? I don't see how anybody can confidently answer that, let alone all the knock-on questions that follow... Napoleon? Break-up of the HRE? Overthrow of ecclesiastical privileges all over Europe? The Russian Army in Paris and Russia into the heart of European affairs at the time it happened? The whole birth of modernity in roughly 1810-1830? Italian and German unification? The revolutions of 1848? On and on.

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