Reflections on the Revolution in the United States of America

Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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143 Responses

  1. CK MacLeod says:

    And really, if we don’t bring all of this up on July 4th—then when?

    Any other time, as well as on the 4th, to the extent we choose to and are able.

    It’s not “martial valor” per se, or mainly, that’s celebrated or intended to be celebrated on the 4th, but the related and prior decision to cease discussion with the tyrant and pledge “lives,” “fortunes” and “sacred honor” to the cause of our “independence.” It was a commitment to sacrifice, lethal violence and risk – reciprocating the violences of tyranny detailed at such length and specificity in the body of the document – on the way to whatever civic or liberal virtues or good society that you seem to want Americans to celebrate somehow more moderately or intelligently.

    I think the people relate to the whole, sensually, symbolically, aesthetically, not especially intellectually – ritualistically, not discursively. We may generally be a bunch of selfish oafs, and we may mostly participate oafishly, but the flyovers, the barbecues, and the fireworks connect us and our kids to something larger anyway, despite ourselves, as ever.Report

  2. Tom Van Dyke says:

    We could do worse than breaking up our eating, drinking, and pyrotechnics by reading the Declaration and reflecting on the ancient ties binding us to one another.

    Already ahead of you. Join in the fun!

    Maybe we could give the Star Spangled Banner (and all of its nervy survivalism) the day off to make room for America the Beautiful

    Why not sing both? Are we rationing patriot feeling?

    Maybe we could cut down on the pomp and beef up the circumstance of our community events—like a big, public, summer Thanksgiving?

    Why? Must we spoil all the fun?

    I get it. I’m as cynical as any of you..

    Ah, that’s why. Perhaps more cynical than most, though. An Independence Day humbug?

    “The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
    – John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

    Well, it turned out we celebrate on the Fourth, which as we all know was the day both Adams and Jefferson died—July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years later. But no need to be Scrooges about this. Eat the ribs, sing the songs, you can see the fireworks from my house!

  3. wardsmith says:

    Been up too late for too many days to type anything meaningful, but just wanted to note I’m apparently not the first to think Walt Whitman totally looks like GandalfReport

  4. Rose says:

    I hadn’t read that Lincoln bit. It’s lovely.Report

  5. Will H. says:

    But I don’t think that the Left would have approved of the Revolution.
    I think they would have been more inclined to start some sort of government program. Raise a few taxes to do it.
    Send somebody out following Revere around to have a little talk with folks and help them to feel better about the British coming.
    I don’t think they would have had a problem with King George as long as his last name was Kennedy; drowned an intern or two in a drunken mishap, maybe.

    And I don’t believe the Left would have cared much for westward expansion.
    All this Gold Rush business doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly.

    [I deleted this part about the stinking hippies.]Report

    • greginak in reply to Will H. says:

      Thus proving the point about bitter animosity ruling the day instead of just trying to get along for just one damn day.Report

      • Scott in reply to greginak says:


        Yes the truth hurts, doesn’t it? Besides, why try and get along with the left as they implement the greatest gov’t power grad in the history of this nation. So much for the Constitution.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Scott says:

          All hail the right, defenders of individual liberty through anti-free speech laws, drug forfeiture laws, warrantless wiretaps, and military invasions of foreign lands.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

            Can’t we all just get along?Report

          • Scott in reply to James Hanley says:


            Funny, but only Barry is now requiring you to buy something, a power that no other admin has ever claimed. Not to mention that Barry has continued all of Bush’s so called assaults on liberty.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Scott says:


              I’m no fan of Obama, nor of PPACA. I’m particularly appalled by Obama’s continuation of Bush’s policies. But make no mistake, conservatives have been far more antipathetic to civil liberties than even liberals have managed to be.

              It’s not liberals that try to make children pray to their god in school, and I’d rather be forced to buy a product that is in and of itself non-ideological than be forced to express belief in any ideology or theology.

              It’s not liberals that created, enforced, and fought violently for legally mandated segregation.

              My point is not to praise liberals, but simply to mock your pretense that conservatives are more supportive of liberty.Report

      • Rod in reply to greginak says:

        Besides which the Revolutionaries were the liberals of their day. The Conservatives were the Tories that didn’t want to shake the boat.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Rod says:

          There are several schools of thought on that subject. Liberal and Conservative as we understand them today don’t make sense in the context of those times. The Revolutionaries who wrote that marvellously Liberal-sounding Declaration of Independence had transformed into Conservatives by the end of the war. Read the first Constitution, it’s flavoured by the bitterness of Shay’s Rebellion, a genuinely ugly bit of repression if ever there was such a thing.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Read the first Constitution, it’s flavoured by the bitterness of Shay’s Rebellion,

            What do you mean by the “first” Constitution? That term is usually used for the Articles of Confederation, which were written (1781) well before Shays’ Rebellion (1786-7).Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

              We may always rely on you for this sort of pedantry. The Articles of Confederation provided for little more than a council of war. We might as well call the North Atlantic Treaty which established NATO a constitution. The Articles of Confederation were a big nothing. They hadn’t supported the troops in the field, they hadn’t provided any meaningful leadership, all they did was bicker and hold to their own powers.

              By “the first Constitution”, I mean the un-amended Constitution.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Pedantry? No, simply asking for a clarification when you used a common term in an uncommon way (which does not mean a wrong way).

                I appreciate the clarification. I also appreciate the pointless churlishness.Report

      • Scott in reply to greginak says:


        I might be more sympathetic to all this kumbya crap but the lefties want to bash this country on the 4th. Thanks Chris Rock.

  6. Well, and I know this is going to sound trollish and maybe even support Will H.’s point about “the Left.” It also might be inappropriate. But here goes:

    I think the Revolution was an unjust war. One of the base causes for it was opposition to a modest tax program imposed to recoup the costs from the UK’s defense of the colonies during the French and Indian War. Another base cause was the UK’s refusal to allow colonists legally to cross the Appalachians and settle onto Indians’ lands.

    Let’s remember the fate of those who voiced opposition to the project, who were raised as British subjects and sought to honor the obligations they felt subjecthood required of them. Many were probably ignored or forgotten. Some probably committed atrocities against the revolutionaries. Some, however, were expropriated, or tarred and feathered, or otherwise suffered violence merely because they fell on the other side.

    Now, the colonists had legitimate grievances. Colonists had not direct representation in Parliament. They weren’t used to paying the type of taxes represented by the Stamp Act, and the tea tax, while not obnoxious, did go to help prop up a special interest (the British East India Co.). The Coercive Acts were a too extreme reaction to the dumping of tea. One colony’s (Pennsylvania’s) efforts to frustrate the development of slavery were repeatedly overturned by the Privy Council.

    I’ll also admit that a lot of good came out of the Revolution. A good example is slavery. It’s hard to know what would have happened with slavery,* but the Revolution appears to have started to erode it fatally. In some states, it was abolished outright; in others, gradual (sometimes very gradual) emancipation schemes were implemented.** Other outcomes, such as the rights eventually guaranteed in the Constitution (freedom of speech, separation of church and state) would almost certainly not be as robust as they are now. The Revolution also started the US on the way to a gradual, but nearly universal, franchise for adult citizens (and while Murali might see it differently, I think it’s a good thing).

    But I find the origins of this great and beautiful movement for all (hu)mankind to be petty, and the violence was a cost, something Americans imposed. I imagine most people here disagree with me, or at least with my belief that the war was unjust. But I do think it’s appropriate and necessary to embrace the moral ambiguity of the project.

    *We know that the UK abolished slavery in its empire in the 1830s. I’m not sure that would necessarily have happened if it had to abolish slavery in mainland America.

    **A case is to be made that the Revolution created conditions that eventually entrenched slavery in the South, and some (Sylvia Frey) have argued that preserving slavery was a key project for some of the Revolutionaries, but I’m adopting the construction most favorable to the Revolutionaries. And we can’t really blame those who thought slavery was going to die out for not foreseeing the late 18th century cotton boom.Report

    • Also, if I remember correctly, the british abolished slavery before the US.

      Wikipedia seems to agree with me. I don’t know what effect pro slavery attitudes in the south may have had on the crown, but that is unlikely to have been much.Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:

        I won’t say more today. It is your independence day. Have fun I will keep my peace on the revolution till tomorrow.Report

        • I look forward to hearing your take.

          For what it’s worth, I do wonder if I’m out of bounds myself, even though it’s “my” independence day. So maybe I should stfu until tomorrow.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

            No, you’re not out of bounds. Or at least I’m out of bounds along with you. The more I learn about the revolution, the less persuaded I am that the colonists had just cause. It sounds to me like a classic case of betrayed expectations leading to a disproportionate reaction (i.e., a temper tantrum).Report

      • I need to know more about the history, but there are two reasons I hesitate to draw on the British example:

        1. I imagine the West Indies plantation owners were politically weak in a way that mainland American colonists were not. In other words, if the colonies were still colonies in the 1830s, the UK might have had a more difficult time abolishing slavery.

        2. Abolition by the UK, as I understand it, was less robust than in the U.S. It freed slaves, but compelled them to undergo a temporary “apprenticeship.” Perhaps that’s not too different from the gradual emancipation schemes in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t full on freedom, at least not right away.

        I’m also not sure of the status and material well-being of the freed W. Indies slaves, vis-a-vis the plantation owners when compared to the status of freed slaves in the US, vis-a-vis their former masters. Some who have done comparisons of emancipation (I believe it was Philip Morgan), have concluded that in the US, the former masters were knocked down more pegs than in other places, and that the constitutional guarantees of full citizenship outdistanced guarantees offered in others. I don’t know how to assess the comparisons. The process of “redemption” and, eventually, Jim Crow, were obvious counterbalances, and if freed slaves were materially better off than their counterparts elsewhere, that might have much more to do with the relative material prosperity of the US and not emancipation by itself.Report

        • “but there are two reasons I hesitate to draw on the British example”

          What I mean is, I hesitate to draw on the British example to gauge what might have been if the Revolution did not happen.Report

        • Matty in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

          1. I imagine the West Indies plantation owners were politically weak in a way that mainland American colonists were not. In other words, if the colonies were still colonies in the 1830s, the UK might have had a more difficult time abolishing slavery.

          I don’t know the relevant history myself but I did remember there being a relevant discussion on here andsure enough.

          The British West Indies trade which relied upon sugar and slaves made up about 21% of their total trade in the period of 1803 – 1807 (helped by the British capture of French west indian possessions) and the British Empire controlled a majority of both the sugar and slave trade in 1807.

          If this is accurate, as I say I don’t know but Mr Akimoto strikes me as an accurate writer.
          Now maybe – the relative importance of the West Indies fell by 1833, or the north American colonies would have been more influential than 21% of trade but I’d like to see more evidence on that score.

          PS I can’t decide whether to mock you for having fireworks when it doesn’t get dark till late (after my bedtime as a child) or be envious because you have the sense to have them when its warm out.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Matty says:


            Kids’ excitement is enhanced by the prospect of getting to suspend the normal rules and stay up late. It makes it even more of a special event.Report

          • Pierre Corneille in reply to Matty says:

            I would defer anything Nob says over what I say in this regard. I’m not an expert on the time period nor on comparative slavery nor on international relations, and he is (at least when it comes to international relations, and he seems to have done more reading than I have on the relevant slavery issues).

            And I buy his argument that (if I read him right, I only skimmed) moral considerations were determinative. I would suggest that as slavery is something maintained by force, the W. Indies plantation owners had, in a sense, less power than their counterparts on the mainland. If the UK withheld its aid during, say, a slave revolt, or even the assurance of aid in such a case, they would be at a loss in a way that southern (US) plantation owners would not have been: they had more assured means of violence at their immediate disposal without needing to invoke the aid of the federal government, although they probably had that assurance as well.

            If we deal in hypotheticals, I’m inclined to say that a British effort to emancipate slaves on mainland North America would have caused an “American Revolution,” in which at least some of the colonies would have seceded in an attempt to establish a slave-owning confederacy. It’s possible that a British refusal to emancipate might have caused a similar secession from the northern colonies, fueled by people who found slavery morally repugnant.

            Again, though, I’ll defer to Nob, who has studied this more than I have.Report

        • Your point no 1 is the biggest worry. The apprenticeship thing was for 6 years. So even if they weren’t free asof 1833, they were still free as of 1838, which was still a good deal before the US freed theirs.

          That said, the rebellion seemed partly over the fact that the colonists lacked political power. If the colonists had aquiesced to this lack, then they wouldnt have had the political power to gainsay the british when te british ended slavery. Of course, as Nob indicated in the other post, this might have triggered a separation from britain by the south on it own.Report

    • I should clear up a misrepresentation in my comment above. It is true that the new (post 1765) taxes were designed, in part, to repay the UK for defending the colonies during the French and Indian War, but one of the promises made to the colonies during that war was, if they formed a common defense against the French and their allies, the UK would foot most of the bill. So there was probably a legitimate grievance there. Still, not one I would say justifies revolution.Report

    • Seems to me an unclear application of the concept of “just war.” Was the war unjust because “war is wrong”? Because rebellion against a merely defective rather than world-historically horrendous state is inherently “unjust”? (There will always, by definition, be some former clients and beneficiaries of an overthrown power structure who are negatively affected.)

      From the point of view of the revolutionaries, the colonists’ relationship to the mother country always tended toward enslavement to a tyranny under an unnatural and unsustainable restraint on their lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. They eventually fully rejected “subjection” to the British monarchy under a constitution to which they were denied and could not expect full access.Report

      • I agree that I’ve been unclear about unjust war. I do think wars, even what I call justified wars, are always wrong, or are always evil, even if done for good. To do good, one has to sometimes engage in evil. I’m not, therefore, a pacifist.

        I do think the British state, in its relations to its colonies from 1763 to 1776, was “merely defective” rather than world-historically horrendous. There is a line at which “merely defective” might degenerate into something that justifies armed rebellion. But at least until the Coercive Acts, I find little defectiveness that merits such an aggressive response. The taxes were imposed without direct representation, although the form of the taxes was modified to incorporate some colonists’ disgruntlement about direct vs. indirect taxation. The taxes, especially the Tea Act, were not particularly onerous. The Stamp Act and, perhaps, the Townshend duties were a different matter, but recall that UK deferred to colonists’ opposition and rescinded them (except the Tea Act). In other words, the defectiveness, in my view was not total.

        I mentioned the Coercive Acts in passing and almost dismissively, but if I just leave it stand, I’d be begging the question, because those acts are, arguably, what inspired the non-New England states to support Massachusetts. I suggest that without the Coercive Acts, the Revolution might not have happened.

        Now, there is a lot of bad to say about them: they were an overreaction, and they initiated a loss of self-government (Martial law under Thomas Gage) and economic collective punishments for the actions of a gang of demagogues (the Sons of Liberty).

        These Coervice Acts, more than any other probably led those colonists inclined to feeling they were reduced to “slavery,” albeit of the peculiar kind of slavery that doesn’t involve becoming chattel, subject to the rule of an overseer who uses violence and the immediate threat of violence to extract labor on a daily basis, or the rule of a master that tries to set up a near total institution,

        But I do believe collective punishment is unjust, and I believe martial law is unjust save under very extreme circumstances that weren’t present in Massachusetts in 1774. But do they justify armed rebellion? My inclination is to say no, especially given the unpredicted and unpredictable consequences and collateral damage armed rebellion can lead to. But I admit it’s a close call.

        So, I hesitate where others would take up arms. And we can disagree. But I still insist it’s important to look at the costs, not just the sacrifices made by “our” side, but the moral sacrifices that “we” impose on ourselves when we celebrate any violence. I do agree with Michael E. below that we can celebrate the implications for the dignity of humankind that were part of the ideals the leaders of the Revolution claimed to believe in. I myself am going to a cookout this afternoon. But we’re also celebrating the acts of violence that gave life to those ideals.Report

        • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

          After 150 years of Britain’s benign neglect, it felt like invasion and occupation when Britain decided she wanted the colonies to start pay tax for their own defense after the French and Indian Wars.

          By that point, the British colonists had become quite American, and the Redcoats rather treated them as they would treat foreigners, not fellow countrymen. The colonists at first did no more than insist on their rights as Englishmen.

          On Edmund Burke, clipped from here:

          When the government decided to tax the colonists, this let loose an angry torrent.

          By this measure we let loose that dangerous spirit of disquisition, not in the coolness of philosophic inquiry, but inflamed with all the passions of a haughty, resentful people, who thought themselves deeply injured, and that they were contending for everything that was valuable in the world.

          The government’s inability to acknowledge that they had done anything to stir up resentment only made matters worse.

          They [Parliament] took no one step to divert the dangerous spirit which began even then to appear in the colonies, to compromise with it, to molify it, or to subdue it.

          In a speech on American Taxation in 1774, Burke continues to harangue his colleagues for refusing to moderate their policies.

          Again, and again, revert to your old principles – seek peace and ensure it – leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy context, will die along with it.Report

          • I don’t disagree with most of this, and the only disagreement is perhaps a pedantic one about “benign neglect.” That period, benign or not, was not really that neglectful. Britain continuously was involved with the colonies, and the Navigation Acts, although used in the post 1763 period to achieve different ends, were in force and, to some degree, enforced. The privy council and the monarch intervened regularly to speak on and intervene into colonial affairs. The French and Indian war was only the last in a series of wars that were done largely, but not exclusively, in the interests of the metropole’s diplomatic priorities (particularly England’s balance of power politics as it sided with some sides over others in European dynastic struggles.)

            Still, perhaps my take down of the “benign neglect” claim is not necessarily accepted by some early American historians (I don’t know). And your account is a pretty accurate explanation of what happened.Report

            • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

              Thank you, Pierre. There’s another angle—America didn’t recognize Parliament’s authority–the colony charters came from the Crown. In between the giving of the crown charters in America in the early 1600s, Britain had had 2 Civil Wars, which executed one king and exiled another. It was with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that Parliament [‘the people”] rose as sovereign in Britain, and the Divine Right of Kings was put to bed there.

              And so, the Declaration quite pointedly and lengthily [!] lists its complaints with the King [that by making war on them, he has “abdicated,” just as James II “abdicated” in 1688].


              Parliament is referred to only in the penultimate paragraph, and only indirectly:

              “Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”

              “Their” legislature, not ours. The Intolerable Acts are not only intolerable, they are illegitimate, as is the British occupation and attempts to enforce the will of Parliament. Once the king’s “abdication” is established, the Crown Charters are null, and America is free by default.

              Which is pretty much how they saw it all along. If the British themselves could knacker two kings, America was hardly doing anything nearly as bad.Report

              • I do suggest that the question of sovereignty wasn’t resolved by the Glorious Revolution. The House of Orange and (later) Hanover exercised a lot of prerogatives.

                I do think the colonists were savvy enough to realize that there was a parliament and that it enacted the post 1763 measures, albeit at the behest of the “King’s representative in parliament” (the PM).

                But you are right that the relationship with the king was complicated in a way that, say, a British subject’s (in Britain) was not.Report

              • Matty in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

                My understanding is the original 1689 settlement was (perhaps ironically) closer to the American system in some ways. The King was to be a powerful and largely independent executive alongside a legislature that held the purse strings and ultimately the right to remove him but did not command his every action anymore than he did theirs. In short there was a separation of powers.

                The reduction of the royal perogatives and effective transfer of the remaining political ones to the PM was a gradual process that followed this.Report

        • If we agree that the absolute moral justice of the resort to arms is, at worst, a close-run thing – especially considering that the Crown could, theoretically, have received the Declaration and said, “Alrighty then, if you feel so strongly about it, OK,” thus removing the threat of war – then what’s left is the natural justice of the colonists choosing independence. What I mean is that, rightly or wrongly, the people of the very lucky 13 colonies eventually worked their way to unification, and then to the occupation and exploitation of the “virgin” continent, efficiently annihilating the indigenous civilization (which woudn’t have been considered the proper term at the time), and over the course of the next 200-plus years converting their natural or geographical advantages into world-historically geopolitical ones. They had substantial difficulty controlling this process from Washington DC, and there’s not much reason to believe that London could have done much better – that is, have been all that much more relevant to it. It’s even questionable whether political forms and their ideological freight, for all of the attention we devote to them, have ever been much more than the outward manifestation of a more or less spontaneous and organic process. That’s in part what Hegel, Marx and others meant when they observed that 18th-19th C. America amounted to a civil society without a state, with a politics whose true content was outside of politics. It is the same politics of the negation of politics that to an in my view important extent characterizes the ideology of contemporary American (constitutional) conservatives, and also of American global hegemony. It is in a sense the purest liberalism, now sometimes called neo-liberalism to distinguish an epoch of its ideological resurgence from the social- or left- or American-liberal insistence on a compulsory humanitarian AND positive content for a liberal politics.Report

          • I’m not sure I fully understand your comment. Do you mean that what’s happened since 1783 would have happened, more or less, with some changes in form, with or without nominal independence, and that Britain standing in the way just made the process more painful than it otherwise might have been, and that, therefore, the Revolution was meant to happen and, in a sense, “had to happen”?

            If so, I think I disagree.

            I will admit that my critique of the Revolution itself is ahistorical (ahistoricity being almost as bad as plagiarism in a historian). It happened and it had causes and movers, and my refusal to take those causes seriously–or, what is essentially the same thing, questioning their rightness when I am dealing with the illimitable and unknowable–takes away something from the analysis.

            If we are talking about how Americans choose to celebrate it, and what about it they choose to celebrate, then I think I’m on more solid ground, for reasons I’ve stated in my (probably too numerous) comments on this thread. I do not think, for what it’s worth, that there was “natural justice” in the colonists’ decision to opt for “independence.” Independence was a contingent undertaking, advanced by certain people and opposed by others (including loyalist Americans and those smeared as “loyalists” even if they just wanted to live out their lives unmolested).Report

            • The best argument for it’s having had to happen, for it (the separation, under whatever outward form) having been overdetermined, is that it DID happen, and furthermore for any efforts to revise its terms significantly failed utterly and quickly became utterly unimaginable. The main threats to the American polity or pseudo-polity have been to its integrity and definition, but not to its separateness or independence – at least up to the moment of the Americanization of the Earth, which dissolves the separation from the other direction, with America or Americanism replacing Britain or European civilization as the center of the world, the empire or neo-empire upon which the sun never sets. The same contradiction that allows or allowed this process to take place also makes comprehension of it difficult. It’s like the magic spell which fails as soon as it is spoken. American anti-politics is characterized by formal absence (limited “government”) combined with actual presence (pervasive “economy”). Because the separation of politics and economics is illusory but highly functional, we can pretend to be disinterested and uninvolved, alternate between isolationism and interventionism, and sooner or later come down fully, and very hard, on one side or another, politically and economically. Similarly, because we believe absolutely in the peaceful and negotiated settlement of differences, we insist on total military superiority and are continually at war enforcing the peace somewhere. We are jealous of our total independence and just want to be left alone – and feel and arguably really are compelled therefore to run the world from rural Waziristan to downtown Brussels and Tokyo. That’s why everyone hates us and can’t do without us, all the while becoming more and more like us, or perhaps like we were, just as we are doomed, and privileged, to be completely unrecognizable to ourselves.Report

              • I *think* I disagree. However, it’s over my head. So maybe I don’t disagree.Report

              • C.K.,

                I didn’t mean to be dismissive. But there is a sense in which you seem to be invoking a philosophy of history that assumes as inevitable what happened because that’s what happened. There’s some strength to that approach, and it compels us historians to respect the contingency inherent in history and it compels us to be (it is to be hoped) a bit more humble.

                But history, as you know, is other things, too. It’s a narrative of the past, and how we construct the causal chains (or, if you want to go all out-of-context analogy to quantum mechanics, the element of pure “randomness” in what happens). This narrative is based on facts, but also posits hypotheticals in the form of causal statements. If x caused y, then if x hadn’t been, then y might not have been, either. Perhaps that’s cheap logic–I’m not a logician–but it seems there’s always or almost always an element of what would have happened whenever we speculate as to causes.

                Part of this narrative process can be memory, in that “how we choose to remember” the American Revolution is in part drawing on and elaborating on a narrative. That’s what the original poster does and that’s what Jaybird does below. My comment that started this ruckus was principally aimed at the “memory” part, although I did not admit it (even not to myself) at the start.

                The act of “remembering” a past event is something we do in the here and now. Therefore, even if we stipulate that what happened was inevitable because it already happened (which is, again, a statement I won’t dismiss out of hand, even if it sounds tautological), the act of memory is a new event.

                At least, those are my thoughts on your arguments here, assuming I understood them correctly.Report

              • The “once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds…” reasoning is somewhat unavoidable when you’re making an argument of over-determination. Maybe we can imagine a not too different other possible world in which the Colonists reached a modus vivendi with the Crown, but the British had their own vaunted constitution – if not an American-style contractual document – and were part of what had become the Old World. And the separation, which for complex reasons also involved re-definitions of warfare and the fortunes of countless people, was bound to be accompanied by violence on a massive scale, given what human beings are. I agree with Blaise Pascal that the violence of the Revolution shouldn’t be minimized, but it was a very small quantity of blood compared to the later related disruptions . There were a few visionaries – Burke among them – who saw the New World as destined to replace Europe, and that was the point: The New World changed everything and was bound to change everything. In material terms – technological, economic, but also political – it just wouldn’t have been possible for the Britain to command North America as it developd without being consumed by the task and commanded by the results. Within 100 years, the European order of the world had fallen apart in principle anyway, though it took the events of the 20th Century to realize the process in fact.Report

              • …which I guess you can take as my own “narrative”… though I strive to be concrete or even scientific in the old sense, rather than, I guess, simply creative or expressive…Report

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            Gee, that was awfully fair.Report

    • Scott in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

      What is morally ambiguous about wanting representation to have a say in your taxes and other gov’t functions? You sound like Joe Biden feeding us BS that paying higher taxes is patriotic.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Scott says:

        There’s nothing morally ambiguous about wanting representation. What’s ambiguous is just how much it is worth.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Scott says:

        The moral ambiguity does not reside in wanting representation to have a say in one’s taxes and other gov’t functions.

        The moral ambiguity is in killing someone in order to obtain what I want. Perhaps in the end the killing can be justified, at least by some lights, but there’s always a little bit of evil that’s done along the way.Report

        • Of course there is moral ambiguity in wanting representation to have a say in one’s taxes and government functions. Whether or not I am ultimately right about whether it is morally legitimate or not, it is ambiguous. Here’s why:

          1. We cannot separate wanting to have a say about what laws govern us from having a say about what laws govern our neighbours. I’m not going to say that the latter is intrinsically immoral, but it is in and of itself sufficiently problematic that it cannot begin to justifyany kind of coercive undertaking, let alone rebellion. Moreover, it is also sufficiently problemtic that the right to exercis such power can granted on instrumental grounds. What will a person, when given such a say, do with it?

          However, since it is local majorities which seem to be more heavily invested with maintaining their locul cultural hegemony, giving people the vote means that they will likely abuse their power to maintain this hegemony and impose it on the minority. I’m firmly of the school of thought tha believes that my neighbour is a greater threat to my liberty than a distant monarch.

          2. People, when they have such a say often tend to ask for large benefits with low taxes. Yet good governance and administration requires that benefits and taxes be in balance with eachother. The latter must be large enough to pay for the former. Putting ultimate taxing power in the hands of the people therefore also seems like a bad idea t pragmatic grounds.Report

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Murali says:

            Good stuff, but “hegemony” is a pejorative. Social stability should be a self-evident good to a Singaporean of Indian extraction. 😉

            Conservatism American Style, that of federalism and limited central government is most concerned about protecting society from government. And protecting the individual [or the family unit] from society AND the government’s hegemony, but only secondarily. [See Barry Alan Shain’s Myth of American Individualism. Modern, “radical” individualism is a more modern innovation.]

            So too, “consent of the governed” doesn’t exactly mean agreement with every jog and tittle of gov’t policy: 100% agreement is impossible in a republic. Consent is given to the government to govern, in a more overall sense.

            The point of the American Revolution is that the colonists rejected parliament’s legitimacy in ruling them: no consent.Report

            • Murali in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              Social stability is great, but I am worried about neighbour wanting more than the minimum required to ensure social stability.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

                Sorry to pick on you again Murali, but … really? That’s your primary worry? That someone may get more than they “deserve”, and getting it will ruin everything glorious and wonderful about the world? Crikey, the whole history of political and economic progress was viewed by the privileged class as exactly what you’re saying here: just a bunch of griping from people who want more than they deserve. And those people thought that giving the gripers what they wanted would ruin everything glorious and wonderful about the world.Report

              • Murali in reply to Stillwater says:

                I think you are misunderstanding me. I was talking about more vis a vis conformity to social and cultural hegemony. To a certain extent, in order to maintain social stability, there have to be certain rules that people conform to. However, failure to participate in a lot of the majority culture’s traditions does not threaten social stability.

                I get that what I said can be interpreted the way you did, but I certainly did not mean for it to be interpreted that way.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

                Tom, since I’m in an apologetic mood after misunderstanding Murali so badly a minute ago, I’d like to give you some credit for this:

                Consent is given to the government to govern, in a more overall sense.

                You being a small government, Constitutioriginalist and all, I can appreciate the tension you feel by supporting things like Medicare and (some form of) welfare, while simultaneously thinking those programs are an abomination. That you continue to support them, as a conservative, is points in your favor. It’s sortuva peace on earth and goodwill to all, thing.*

                *I googled the source of that aphorism and one of the things that came up was the following:

                Darby Bible Translation
                Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good pleasure in men.

                Damn you, Google.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                Whoops! Wrong locale. But maybe not. Sorry about about jumping the gun on that one, Murali.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Stillwater says:

                Thx for the above, StillH20. I support Medicare strongly: Not leaving our parents to die when they are old and useless is the first hallmark of civilization, in my view. I’m proud of us for it and give all credit to the Democratic Party.

                [The primary hallmark of civilization except for abjuring infanticide, but that one’s best left for elsewhen.]Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Stillwater says:

                Out of curiosity, why do you support it? Why would your answer to MC not be similar to universal HC? Certainly if our elderly made good choices they wouldn’t need MC, no?Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Stillwater says:

                Well, it’s too late for the oldsters to make any more choices, Tod. But they live off the fat of the land—“gleaning” they called it in the Bible.

                But everybody can’t live off the gleanings. That defeats the whole purpose of farming in the first place. Medicare is a free rider, paying steep discounts. Everybody can’t be on a steep discount.

                I’m all for financing our county health systems as the provider of last resort for the poor. And we ignore charity and clinics in this discussions as well, as if they don’t exist, despite them contributing on the order of $40-50 billion.

                That is what we as a society owe them, some minimum but not full health insurance—that defeats the whole purpose of working a farm. Why bother to farm when you can live off the gleanings of the next guy’s place? And indeed, free health insurance makes people consume health care at a much higher rate, a trip to the doctor’s for the sniffles.

                There must be some sense to all this.Report

            • Murali in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              Damn, I pressed submit too quickly.

              So too, “consent of the governed” doesn’t exactly mean agreement with every jog and tittle of gov’t policy: 100% agreement is impossible in a republic. Consent is given to the government to govern, in a more overall sense.

              I’m wondering whether this is the kind of consent people would give to a monarch (or a technocratic legislature) who governs well. i.e. if this is a kind of consent which does not apply to non-democratic regimes, but does in fact apply to democratic regimes, I wonder if we can pin down exactly what kind of consent is involved. My suspicion is that for any specific notion of consent, either it would be too narrow as to exclude democracies like the US or broad enough to include the UAE.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Murali says:

                Oh, I think you’ve hit the vein of Consent of the Governed, Mr. Murali.

                We should fear such tyranny as you describe, Murali. Although authoritarianism seems to have the consent of the governed in Singapore.

                Americans wouldn’t put up with it for ten seconds. I found the place pretty creepy. [Won a trip there on a game show.]

                Come to think of it, the only place we felt comfortable was the Indian Quarter, or whatever you call it. Was that the only pqart of Singapore that remains the Anglosphere? That would explain it, eh????

                Perhaps you’re revolting—or find revolting—India’s cultural history, which would be a fascinating prism through with to evaluate America’s own, both being ex-colonies and all. Slavery, Jim Crow, the caste system.

                Just axin’. There’s a reason we keep you around, y’know.Report

              • Murali in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Come to think of it, the only place we felt comfortable was the Indian Quarter, or whatever you call it. Was that the only pqart of Singapore that remains the Anglosphere? That would explain it, eh????

                We call it Little India. But seriously, Little India as part of the Anglosphere? It seems like one of the few places (apart from Chinatown and the like) that have yet to enter it. Of course as a tourist, you would have probably been taken to the most “ethnic” looking places. In a number of ways, much of Singapore is not really profoundly different from places in New York or Chicago.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Murali says:

                Actually, we stumbled into Little India, looking for a decent meal. Can’t stand that Malay stuff. Tastes like they take decent food and put garbage juice in it to make it ethnic.Report

          • CK MacLeod in reply to Murali says:

            We cannot separate wanting to have a say about what laws govern us from having a say about what laws govern our neighbours. I’m not going to say that the latter is intrinsically immoral, but it is in and of itself sufficiently problematic that it cannot begin to justifyany kind of coercive undertaking, let alone rebellion.

            Maybe I’m not understanding what you mean to say. As written, the comment is an argument for total solipsism or a-sociality.

            In addition, according to the same logic, not having a say in what laws govern our neighbors would mean not having a say in what laws govern us.

            So, either we’re all in this together, with a shared “say,” most of its content already assumed by way of custom and never questioned until conflicts arise, or we have no government.

            As for what a person, or people, will do with such a “say,” that is a question we cannot avoid answering and re-answering, thus determining the political character of whatever society.

            And as for ultimate taxing power – and setting aside the assumption, seemingly not borne out by history, regarding what democratic systems will invariably do with it – it remains in the hands of the people because, under popular sovereignty, all and every kind of power remains ultimately in the hands of the people. (This is latently true even in systems that operated with no concept of popular sovereignty, where the popular will appears dormant or un-exercised. According to one theory of history, history itself is the process of coming to recognize and fully realize this potential.)Report

            • Murali in reply to CK MacLeod says:

              Maybe I’m not understanding what you mean to say. As written, the comment is an argument for total solipsism or a-sociality

              Maybe I wasn’t being clear. I’m saying that since the right to have a say in what laws govern me cannot be disentangled from having a say in what laws govern my neighbour, we cannot unproblematically grant it to people the same way we could unproblematically grant to people the right to pursue their own religious commitments consistent with everyone else having a similar right. An even easier case is freedom of speech. Whether or not everyone wants it, since we can disentangle stuff I want to say from stuff I want others to say. Given modest normative assumptions, things like freedom of speech and religion are unproblematic. If I have no legitimate interests in what others do in their bedroom or prayer-room (within the normal range of cases) , then the question of whether to grant someone freedom of speech and religion does not depend on what they will do with it (cannibalism and FGM situations aside)

              When it comes to voting, I very obviously have a legitimate interest in how others may vote. They may vote to take away my religious liberties. Whether or not it is a good idea to grant a given person the right to vote therefore depends on what that person is likely to do with it.

              Now, none of this makes a definitive argument against democracy. but it does show how the right to vote is morally ambiguous in and of itself.

              Disturbing the peace, whether in the form of civil disobedience, public demonstrations, or for that matter armed rebellion, if it is to be justified, must be in service to a cause that is far less morally ambiguous than democracy. i.e. Gay rights is a good unambiguous cause to fight for. Democracy, even if it turns out to be better than forms of government is not.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Murali says:

                Whether or not it is a good idea to grant a given person the right to vote therefore depends on what that person is likely to do with it.

                That is only one possible consideration. The other considerations include what that person, and people like that person, can be expected to do, and what we can expect to be done to them, if they are denied democratic rights. Another way of putting the question would be, “What kind of society do we wish to live in?” A good case can be made from different points of view in favor of liberal democracy in the modern world – which brings us to:

                Gay rights is a good unambiguous cause to fight for. Democracy, even if it turns out to be better than forms of government is not.

                I’d like to think you were joking.

                Democracy as a cause has frequently in history commanded the allegiance, to the death, of its advocates. You may not feel obligated to count yourself among them, and you can have your doubts about whether democracy is the truly only viable alternative in the modern world to tyranny, but every government, including tyranny, assumes power only the basis of someone somewhere having been willing to fight for it. The differences between governments will in that sense always be something “fought for” at some point, and implicitly ready to be fought for again. Even Singapore.

                Whether the particular form is worth fighting for – from the perspective of a given individual or in some moral sense – will often depend on what the real alternatives are. It may sometimes be that conditions either do not allow for or are not felt to require the familiar institutions of mass electoral democracy. Especially in countries where for whatever reasons democracy under some configuration is the only viable alternative to tyranny or chaos, then it can be considered very much worth fighting for, however, and it has been taken that way, in a manner quite characteristic of the modern age, for good or ill. The commitment in America has been understood as so fundamental, so definitional for any human life worth living at all, that we have been prepared to put the fate of the world in doubt rather than give up on it.Report

          • Murali:

            Interesting point, and maybe I agree (I’m not very good at doing philosophy).Report

        • Scott in reply to Pierre Corneille says:


          “The moral ambiguity is in killing someone in order to obtain what I want. Perhaps in the end the killing can be justified, at least by some lights, but there’s always a little bit of evil that’s done along the way.”

          With that kind of an attitude I’m glad we don’t have to rely on you to protect our freedoms. I’m curious, does this idea of moral ambiguity attach itself to situations were a person uses deadly force to protect themselves?Report

          • Pierre Corneille in reply to Scott says:


            With that attitude, I’m glad we don’t have to rely on you to protect our freedoms.

            But because you’re curious…

            Yes, my idea of moral ambiguity does attach itself to such situations. However, the ambiguity decreases commensurate with the deadliness and imminence of the force arrayed against one who uses the deadly force in return. I believe that the ambiguity is never zero, although it can come darn close.Report

            • Stillwater in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

              I was tempted to answer that one myself. And if I was gonna, this is what I’d say:

              The act of killing another is always morally wrong, but in certain contexts it can be justified. Self-defense is one such context. But notice that killing in self-defense is a justification for doing what is otherwise morally wrong. So self-defense doesn’t eliminate the immorality of killing another on iota. It merely justifies doing so.Report

              • I more or less agree. But I am bothered when two goods–defending one’s own life and not killing someone–conflict with each other. It’s therefore hard for me to say that killing in self-defense is *just as* immoral as killing in cold blood.

                On the other hand, perhaps I’m looking at it wrong. Perhaps I’m thinking of goodness and badness and identifiable, measurable quantities, and not something that is sheerly good or sheerly bad. In other words, perhaps I’m assuming that killing in cold blood has, for example, 5,347,981 badnesses, while killing in self defense has only 111,210 badnesses. I’m being faceitious, but I hope it illustrates what I mean.

                But yes, in my heart, I believe killing is always wrong, even if necessary and justified.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

                Sure, there’s a problem there. Does any moral theory not have problems?

                Killing in cold blood (if we set up the right hypothetical) is not only clearly immoral, but unjustifiable (well, there’s nuance there as well, but let’s overlook it). Killing in self defense is the commission of an otherwise immoral act, but justifiably so, and lacks a bunch of other morally relevant properties, like intent and motive.

                One way to make sense of it, it seems to me, is that when you kill in self defense, the relevant moral properties sum to being on the +moral side of things. But even on that type of calculus, when you killed that dude, you did something morally -.Report

              • Sins you can live with are better than sins you can’t.Report

              • I’m sure you’re aware, but anyway I think it deserve to be taken into consideration, that this discussion would have been somewhat alien to the times, except I suppose among the Quakers and handful of others, and is somewhat alien to our times as well. In other words, the resort to arms would have been more difficult to justify as a practical matter, and in relation to the right to rebel, than as an absolute moral one for the American revolutionaries. Setting aside peculiar and complicated questions about the status of the colonies, this was a period in which war was “bracketed” as an acknowledged instrument of statecraft and “field of honor,” not as an in itself morally questionable or criminal activity.Report

  7. “And Americans hate each other more robustly now than ever before.”

    I suppose I should be quiet now that I’ve written that Jebediah Springfield wasn’t all that. But I’m not sure this statement is true. Americans’ hatred and suspicion of their fellow citizens and residents runs deep and has run deep for a long time.

    Now, that’s probably essentially just a nit-picky argument. We don’t have to say Americans hate each other “more robustly now than ever before” to acknowledge that they hate each other more than they should. And I take that to be your point.Report

  8. Kolohe says:

    One thing I’m seeing a bit less this year compared to previous ones are July 4 pieces with the theme ‘remember the troops in Afghanistan’. Which was a muddled metaphor if there ever was one.Report

  9. Michael E says:

    The worst sin children commit is believing that their current state of abundance came easy and forgetting the hard work and sacrifice their parents made so the children wouldn’t have to.

    Trashing the reputation of the Founders and Patriots has become a cottage industry. “Redeeming” them has become another.

    Does it indicate an extreme example of cognitive dissonance that a slave owner wrote, all men are created equal”?


    Here are the words:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    No matter who wrote them, or under what circumstances, the only question that matters is this:

    Is it a good idea?Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Michael E says:

      Is it churlish to recall that it was written by a slaveholder?


      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Pretty much. And intellectually dull: “Presentism” is the secret of bad history. Why isn’t there anything about a right to free wi-fi in there?Report

        • Scott in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:


          Nothing about that or free phones, housing, food, etc. Yet the left still thinks it is the gov’ts job to provide all that and more as soon as they discover the next right/entitlement.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          Is anyone actually arguing for a right to free Wi-Fi? Towns opting to offer public Wi-Fi in certain spots is far from a oush for freeWi-Fi. That’s really a strawman without anything to substantiate it.Report

          • Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

            There have been people who have argued for city-wide WiFi (above and beyond certain spots), but never in the “human rights” sense, but more in the technocratic “this would be a good thing” sense. That’s died down since the people most likely to make the point now have the Internet on their phones. That being said, I do think that people not having Internet on their phones will be considered indicative of a societal failure somewhere down the line.

            (In case it’s not clear, I’m not disagreeing with your “really a strawman” argument, just adding more context.)Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Will Truman says:

              In the same way that people without access to public utilities are considered impoverished (people in the hills who still use outhouses, for example), when wi-fi is considered a public utility, people without access to wi-fi will be considered impoverished.

              The elimination of poverty, at that point, will entail provision of wi-fi.

              What I don’t like about that argument is that the elimination of poverty in 2112 will entail the provision of things that I, Jay, do not have. I, Jay, am not impoverished. Knock wood.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to Scott says:

                Internet is not WiFi. Beyond which, the context in which you cite is not “the Internet should be without cost” but rather “The internet should not be censored,” making it actually closer to a speech issue than a poverty issue.Report

              • Scott in reply to Will Truman says:

                And in Finland it is a legal right.


              • Pierre Corneille in reply to Scott says:

                Darn those Finns. First the progressive penalties, pegged to income, and now they’re deciding to consider something a right you don’t think they should. Plus….they claim they’re Scandinavian and don’t even speak a Scandinavian language.

                (Apologies to any Finns out there who may be reading.)Report

              • Will Truman in reply to Scott says:

                At most, you’ve simply brought us back to “Internet is not WiFi.”Report

              • Scott in reply to Will Truman says:

                Neither of which is a right. Kazzy was the one that mentioned wi-fi. I’ve shown that lefties want to arbitrarily create new rights to such stuff. Sorry that you are wrong.Report

              • Scott in reply to Will Truman says:

                Sorry I meant TVD, is bringing it up as the example of what lefties want to demand.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Will Truman says:

                Well, I brought it up as an antidote to presentism and humbugging July 4.Report

              • The Left in reply to Will Truman says:

                And what could be more unpatriotic on this Independence Day than expanding the list of rights for people to enjoy?

                Snarkily yours,
                The LeftReport

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Will Truman says:

                That doesn’t make any sense, Lib60, unless you invoke the Spirit of ’76, as Frederick Douglass did.

                Otherwise, you’re invoking the spirit of Woodrow Wilson, which should be done on May Day.


                “Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.

                All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when “development” “evolution,” is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.

                Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence, signed in Philadelphia, July 4th, 1776. Their bosoms swell against George III, but they have no consciousness of the war for freedom that is going on today.

                The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day. It is of no consequence to us unless we can translate its general terms into examples of the present day and substitute them in some vital way for the examples it itself gives, so concrete, so intimately involved in the circumstances of the day in which it was conceived and written. It is an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men; not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory for government, but a program of action. Unless we can translate it into the questions of our own day, we are not worthy of it, we are not the sons of the sires who acted in response to its challenge.”


              • Scott in reply to Will Truman says:


                My first objection is that invariably any new right requires someone else to pay for it so the mass can enjoy their new right. Second if you are going to create new rights, at least pick something real. I find it amusing that you call internet a right but not food or housing. As the author of the link article points out the internet is just a tool to allow folks to realize their rights. Maybe the left could learn something from the author.


              • James Hanley in reply to Will Truman says:


                I disagree, of course, because those new rights are mostly–although not all–positive rights. But it was really damn well said! So +1 despite my disagreement.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Will Truman says:

                My first objection is that invariably any new right requires someone else to pay for it so the mass can enjoy their new right.

                That fails to distinguish between different types of rights. A right to SSM does not require anyone else to pay for it. A right to grow and smoke pot does not require anyone else to pay for it. A right to travel to Cuba directly from Miami does not require anyone else to pay for it.

                For those rights that do require someone else to pay for it, I’m in agreement with you. But it’s not invariable that new rights will be of that type.Report

              • Scott in reply to Will Truman says:

                You are right, I should have been more specific.Report

            • Murali in reply to Will Truman says:

              I don’t have internet on my phone and don’t really plan to have any in any future phones I buy.Report

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Kazzy says:

            Kazzy, we’ve had extensive discussion @ LoOG about Wi-Fi as a right. Must we restart every discussion at the turnip truck level, and hence with a charge of strawmanning? Yes, it’s a reductio ad absurdum, but once we start kicking it around, it’s revealed as not a very successful illustration of absurdity afterall.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          “Remember, you were slaves in Egypt” goes back millenia.

          “Presentism”. What bull.Report

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Yes, presentism is bull and I wish people would stop it. It junks up any possibility of learning from the past instead of sitting in a sophomore’s judgment of it.

            Plus, it’s such a drag.Report

            • Mike Schilling in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              And it’s so convenient, when complaining that the present doesn’t live up to the ideals of the past, to ignore that the past didn’t either.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                You miss the point against “presentism,” Mike. Slavery in Egypt was always considered bad: the Founders themselves used the image as a metaphor for themselves. To invoke it in turn against the enslavement of blacks wasn’t presentism atall, it was a proper use of history. If x was evil then, it’s evil now.

                Saying the Spirit of ’76 is bogus because the Virginians owned slaves is presentism, though. It’s precisely that spirit that Frederick Douglass invoked in his own famous July 4 speech.

                Had Douglass simply condemned America as hypocritical and therefore bogus, his speech would rightfully have been buried in history, along with all the other scolds. Instead, it’s his invocation of the Founding principles for a greater and more just America that gives it its historical importance.

                {The historical importance of 1776 in its own right also gets buried under the hand-wringing presentism over race.

                “It was the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation of civil government. It was the corner stone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe. It demolished at a stroke the lawfulness of all governments founded upon conquest. It swept away all the rubbish of accumulated centuries of servitude. It announced in practical form to the world the transcendent truth of the unalienable sovereignty of the people. It proved that the social compact was no figment of the imagination; but a real, solid, and sacred bond of the social union.

                From the day of this declaration, the people of North America were no longer the fragment of a distant empire, imploring justice and mercy from an inexorable master in another hemisphere. They were no longer children appealing in vain to the sympathies of a heartless mother; no longer subjects leaning upon the shattered columns of royal promises, and invoking the faith of parchment to secure their rights. They were a nation, asserting as of right, and maintaining by war, its own existence. A nation was born in a day.

                – John Quincy Adams, Speech on Independence Day, July 4, 1821.”}Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Presentism is as simplistic a criticism as historical revisionism. It’s carelessly used both to criticize whiggish history and the exploration of differing moral standards of different areas, even though those are not equal. It’s used as a cheap substitute for making a substantive argument, primarily by those who have a need for a touch of hero worship. Unable to honestly deny the imperfections of their pantheon of demigods they beg us to overlook their human frailties with misplaced cries of “Presentism.”. They are not to be taken seriously, as would an actual historian who uses the term.Report

  10. BlaiseP says:

    It’s not trollish to observe wars are unjust things. Wars start when politics fail and they stop when the politicians start doing their goddamn jobs again. However much I appreciate the USA (and I do!) nobody’s cause is well served by lauding it with lying encomiums.

    The Revolution wasn’t really about taxation. It was about representation. Had we gone on, had the Revolution failed, we would have become another Ireland, only worse, with many religious factions. Religious persecution was a fact of life in the Colonies: it had been a fact which led to the foundation of many of the colonies. The Church of England was persecuting the Presbyterians and the various factions were persecuting each other. It was a narrow scrape, avoiding the fate of Ireland. We see that failure in Iraq today, Afghanistan, too. Egypt’s going down that road, Syria’s a theological mess. The Mormon exodus to the Salt Lake shows it would have happened here, too, if we had not gone the Federalist / Anti-Federalist route. But that only happened because religious oppression was bad for business here in the Colonies.

    The colonies had begun as private enterprises. They weren’t entered into Parliament precisely because they were subsidised corporations. The Navigation Acts obliged the colonies to sell their goods to the Home Country, Great Britain. Curiously, the colonies had a distinct advantage: they had the timber to build the merchant ships and the crews to sail them. The British didn’t have the timber and their crews were often idle in the same ports. The colonies enjoyed the protection of the British warships but the British enjoyed a monopoly on trade. The wealth of the colonies was an illusion. While the British held monopolies on trade, they set the prices and often didn’t pay their bills on time.

    It could not last. The British weren’t defending us from anyone. The colonies were propping up an Imperium. Had the British followed the advice of Burke and Pitt, the entire English-speaking world would have shifted its focus to North America, much as Portugal lives in the shadow of its erstwhile colony Brazil.

    You say the Revolution appeared to erode the culture of slavery. I question this assertion. The Industrial Revolution was already in progress when the Revolution began. Slavery might have faded away had the market for cotton not expanded. Cotton’s a labour-intensive crop. So is sugar cane. Though the Industrial Revolution had given the world the power loom and the sugar mill and the cotton gin, it had not given us the technology to farm these crops. America’s long history of private enterprise unfettered by meaningful human rights led the Revolution in the wrong direction. Oh, they knew they were hypocrites, the Founding Fathers. We are hypocrites in our own times, pretending the rights of man can be thrust aside in the face of economic pressures.

    The world was changing. Had Great Britain been less-stupidly led, North America would be a different place entirely. To their credit, it was the British people themselves who demanded an end to the Revolutionary War, as the American people would demand an end to the Vietnam War. There are a few voices left who cry out against our own hypocrisies in these times, as did Edmund Burke in his time, speaking to the colonists:

    Do not think, that the whole, or even the uninfluenced majority, of Englishmen in this island are enemies to their own blood on the American continent.  Much delusion has been practiced; much corrupt influence treacherously employed.  But still a large, and we trust the largest and soundest, part of this kingdom perseveres in the most perfect unity of sentiments, principles and affections with you.

    And thus the USA and the UK remain the oddest of friends, rather like mother and daughter who once bitterly quarreled and are now reconciled: the relationship now defined by our long common history, a history which goes back as far before the American Revolution as after it. Every Prime Minister of the UK has come a-visiting to the White House and has been shown the one little patch which isn’t white, the charred bit of wall left where the British troops burned it. Their empire has come home to roost on Albion’s isle: Nigerian and Indian and Caribbeans. The human flotsam of our own wars have come home to roost: the Vietnamese, the Hmong, the wretched refuse of a hundred teeming shores we once stupidly tried to “liberate”.

    The American Revolution happened, as do all wars, for many reasons. None of them were particularly good or wise. Most of the casualties of that war were civilian on civilian. And I don’t go to fireworks displays. What began on July 4th, 1776 would continue on August 28, 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King would tell the world of his dream:

    …When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
    It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

    • I might disagree with you on what would have happened to slavery, but if I’m wrong, that’s probably grist for my mill.

      I suggest, however, that the colonies were already another Ireland. With some exceptions (e.g., the Quaker and Mennonite settlers of Pennsylvania), the normal mode of colonization was to seize land, define a perimeter (a “pale,” if you will) and state that all the natives (Amerindians, Irish, whatever) were beyond the pale and barbarians. In practice, of course, it was more complicated than that. And colonization was not merely an Anglo project, but it was largely (and again, to generalize) an anti-Indian project in a similar way that the long English settlement of Ireland was an anti-Irish project.

      As for your point about private corporations/monopoly spearheading colonization and not having representation in parliament thereby, I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, too, although I’m not sure it matters for the point either of us are making. The corporations–joint-stock companies–were very different from the creature we know today as corporations, and they were very much a state (read: royal) project. But all the corporations (if I’m not mistaken) eventually failed and were taken over by by the Crown, and many colonies started out as proprietorships, most of those also being taken by the Crown (except maybe PA).

      However, I can sign on to this:

      The American Revolution happened, as do all wars, for many reasons. None of them were particularly good or wise. Most of the casualties of that war were civilian on civilian.


      • BlaiseP in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        William the Conqueror had rounded up every readily-available warlord in Europe for his invasion of Britain, promising them the spoils of his war. No sooner had he overthrown Harold than he cynically dispersed these warlords as far as he could get them away from London, saying their spoils were the land they could conquer and control. He would face rebellions for the rest of his life.

        The Normans would eventually conquer Ireland on the same basis a few decades later. The native peoples of both Britain and Ireland were simply swept out of the way or murdered outright.

        This pattern was repeated in the New World. Everyone did it but the English were especially good at it. You’re correct to point out the Corporations of the 1600s bore little resemblance to the corporations of today, with one crucial common tie to the past: the creation of incorporations remains the province of the State, in our case, the individual states.

        The bad precedent had been set when the Corporations indentured colonists. Those colonists were thus hardened to the notion of slavery. Great Britain had a long tradition of free men, they didn’t countenance chattel slavery on their own island but they sure did elsewhere.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

          The native peoples of both Britain and Ireland were simply swept out of the way or murdered outright.

          Huh? The Normans became overlords, but they didn’t replace the native population in any part of the British Isles (or Sicily, or anywhere else they conquered.). Not enough of them , for one thing. Otherwise, we’f be speaking French instead of simplified German with lots of French vocabulary.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            The Normans did evict the native peoples. Many of today’s Scots Highlanders were evicted from their lands by the Normans. Wales was flooded with refugees from the Norman conquests. The Normans established the Laws of the Forest, evicting woodland peoples. The Normans not only evicted peoples, they settled others on their lands.

            The Normans did impose French on the nobility and much of our legal jargon comes from them. All our four-letter words are Saxon but their politer equivalents are of French origin.Report

        • I find little to disagree with here, as I know too little about how the Normans actually took over England. I could, but won’t, quibble, probably endlessly, over the nuances of in what way corporations in the 1600s were state projects, but I think we’re essentially in agreement about that, too.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

            We’re just fleshing out the details, there’s no real disagreement. In observing the Virginia Company was a private corporation which eventually lapsed into the control of the Crown, my point about the “private” nature of those Corporation was merely to point out the colonists wanted it both ways: they wanted the benefits of British protection but also the special status afforded them by being exempt from British taxes.

            This tracks rather well with your original point about the causes of the Revolution, taxing the colonists for their own defence and the hobbling of westward expansion across the Appalachian mountains.Report

    • George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

      The American Revolution happened, as do all wars, for many reasons. None of them were particularly good or wise. Most of the casualties of that war were civilian on civilian.

      I don’t think that was the case. Almost all the casualties in the American Revolution were American continentals and militia, Hessians, and British regulars and sailors, with most historians only listing around 3,000 civilian casualties (except for those who try to blame a decades-long smallpox problem on the war, which is a stretch).

      One of the reasons our uber-patriotic 4th of July lore doesn’t dwell on the tremendous American civilian death toll is that there wasn’t much to speak of.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

        I cannot vouch for these numbers, but here they are.

        The war in the South was particularly awful if my family stories are to be believed.Report

        • George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

          From what I’ve read, South Carolina was where the worst killings took place. You link referenced this work, and chapter 12 (starting on page 150) lists some of the killings and the protests and charges they generated.

          From other sources, that area seems to account for 3,000 to 4,000 civilian dead, the bulk of most figures for the war as a whole. Much of the killing seemed to concern people who were soldiers but who weren’t in service at the actual time (as was common then), or were thought to be soldiers, often mistakenly when compared to muster rolls.

          The 25,000 figure (it said was averaged from multiple sources) might be the result of averaging the low numbers with the 100,000+ estimate that counts an eight-year smallpox epidemic as part of the war.

          Still, going to war worked out better than a peaceful end to British occupation, if India is taken as an example, as the civilian deaths there numbered around half a million to a million.Report

  11. Tod Kelly says:

    Connor, I’m going to skip joining in the chorus of unintended irony and just say I thought this post was fantastic, per usual.Report

  12. Jaybird says:

    The Idea of America is one that is worth having and keeping.

    When we look back at our mythologies, we get closer and closer and come to the conclusion that, yeah, they’re myths. They didn’t happen that way… the founders were petty men (many owned slaves, after all) who gave great speeches about how men ought to be free.

    It makes more sense to me, however, to read those great speeches and boggle at how amazing (and admirable!) the sentiments contained within them are. How these are things that all men ought to struggle toward… rather than read them and mock the people who gave them as being unworthy of giving them.

    I’m probably unworthy of giving those speeches, myself. I wish that I weren’t. I think that being a country worthy of saying those things without being mocked for it afterward is a goal worth struggling for.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      It always irritates when when Major League Baseball congratulates itself by celebrating Jackie Robinson. The Dodgers have that right, because they’re the ones who bucked the system, and the Robinson family, and the organizations that supported him, like the NAACP, but MLB itself? If after 60-odd years of blatant discrimination you slowly and begrudgingly knock it off [1], all you’re entitled to is “We’re sorry, but at least we eventually learned better.”

      1. The Phillies had no black players until 1957 and the Red Sox until 1959.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        My issue, of course, is with “we”.

        To what extent did I learn better when it comes to letting black players play alongside white players? I was born years after baseball was fully integrated.

        When it comes to race relations and racism in this country, I was born on third.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

          If this country rose above its sins and errors, especially the sins of slavery and racial discrimination, we do not have our nation to thank for these improvements. When our government could have done something, it didn’t.

          It was men like Leo Durocher who stood up and were counted.

          It’s a dangerous sort of mythologising, to conflate the bravery of individuals with the Idea of America. Everyone does it and far be it from me to mock you for observing the Idea of America is one worth having and keeping.

          The Idea is Great. The facts of America are pretty grim. If we’re better as a nation, and we are, it’s because the Idea of America could give rise to men like Dr. King and Leo Durocher, who shamed America into living up to those ideals.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

            “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. “

            Words to live by.Report

        • Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

          “When it comes to race relations and racism in this country, I was born on third.”

          Man, that comment might be my favorite of the whole year so far.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

          Did you hit a triple?Report

    • Rtod in reply to Jaybird says:

      Outstanding comment, JBReport

    • Will Truman in reply to Jaybird says:

      To touch on what Jaybird is saying here, there is some value to the myth in itself. They weren’t where they ought to have been. We still aren’t where we ought to be. But without the power of these myths and these ideas, we would be much, much further away than we presently are. Without the power of myth and fallen idealism, they could have just named Washington king and left it at that. Then, after he died without an obvious heir, descended into civil war. They set a course of ideals that we still try to live up to. Even if we still don’t, that’s worth a lot.Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Will Truman says:

        Wallowing in America’s sins is a humbug. Frederick Douglass’ “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July” [1852] is worthy of note today, however, where the great Douglass indeed call America to live up to her high-minded ideals.

        And we fought a great civil war and kill a half-million of us for that original sin of enslaving the black man; rather than rue its segregation, we should celebrate baseball’s integration. The whole point of these national holidays is to inspire, to look to our ideals rather than to our failures.

        Positive reinforcement, if you will.

        There are those who prefer putting on the hair shirt whenever others put on their holiday clothes. Me, I don’t want to ruin the scold’s fun, but neither do I want him to ruin everybody else’s. Anybody can be a drag. For some people, it’s the only way they can have fun.

        For the rest of us, it’s about the higher aspiration, as Douglass sums up: his despair at America’s failure is surpassed by her promise:

        “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.”

        Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain.

        God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
        When none on earth
        Shall exercise a lordly power,
        Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;
        But all to manhood’s stature tower,
        By equal birth!
        THAT HOUR WILL, COME, to each, to all,
        And from his prison-house, the thrall
        Go forth.

        Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
        With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
        To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
        The spoiler of his prey deprive-
        So witness Heaven!
        And never from my chosen post,
        Whate’er the peril or the cost,
        Be driven.

  13. dhex says:

    “And Americans hate each other more robustly now than ever before.”

    how do we measure this?Report