The Corner

Conrad Black on the American Revolution

All in all, I think Rich does a fine job replying to Conrad Black. But I think he really lets him off the hook in at least one regard. Black writes:

Lowry and Ponnuru are correct that America was already the wealthiest place in the world per capita, and it had 40 percent of the population of Britain and was the chief beneficiary of the eviction of France from Canada. The colonists should certainly have paid something for the British efforts on their behalf, and “no taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party and so forth were essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes.

Oh please. I don’t think it’s wise or necessary for National Review to be seen as re-litigating the American Revolution. Modern American conservatives are not those kind of conservatives. But to argue that the American Revolution (that’s what I take “and so forth” to mean given the larger thrust of his piece) was just a masterful bit of spin designed to get out of paying our fair share really won’t do.

Consider two commentators whose authority on such matters I would expect Conrad Black to at least respect, if not bow to: Lord Acton and Edmund Burke.

Lord Acton marked the birthday of liberty as 1776 for a reason. Acton believed that the American Revolution was the application of the best ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment and of English philosophy and political custom. He wrote liberty had been dying in Europe in 1773, but that it was riding to the rescue not from the forests of Germany but from the forests of Pennsylvania. Acton was too contemptuous of the English Revolution of 1688, I think. But he was right that the more important triumph of liberty came in 1776.

As for America being on the wrong side of a “grubby contest” about taxes, Edmund Burke — the founding father of modern conservatism, on both sides of the pond, and a contemporary observer — didn’t see it that way. In his speech “On American Taxation” Burke came out on America’s side. While Burke had hoped for reconciliation with the British in America, he always recognized the decency and justice of the American cause — a marked contrast with Burke’s views on the evils of the French Revolution. During the war, Burke was not only dismayed that his German-descended king was waging war against the “American English” with the “the hireling sword of German boors and vassals,” he grew convinced that American victory was the only way to ensure the survival of liberty in Britain. If the British defeated the colonists, Burke feared, than Whiggish principles would be in mortal danger at home as well.

Black goes on to say that America at its founding didn’t much care to “export democracy.” As Rich rightly notes, this is a misreading of his and Ramesh’s point, which I’ll state plainly: The American experiment — a republic if we can keep it — was rightly and nigh upon universally seen, by common men and courtiers alike, as the most significant and pioneering adventure in liberty anywhere in the world. As such, the founders understood that their first obligation was to ensure its success. After all, the school of mankind is example, quoth Burke, and it will learn at no other.

Black can assert that people were more free in the Netherlands or Scandinavia all he likes. The simple fact is that lovers — and haters — of liberty all around the world were looking to America for inspiration. Indeed, Belgium — formerly the Austrian Netherlands — explicitly followed America’s example, and our declaration of independence, in 1789. 

In Denmark (which then held Norway as well) the American Revolution consumed the public’s attention. The press was filled with stirring and profound arguments about more than “grubby contests about taxes.”  Here is what A. P. Bernstorff, the powerful, pro-British, Danish minister for foreign affairs, wrote to a friend on Oct. 22, 1776:

“The public here is extremely occupied with the rebels in America , not because they know the cause, but because the mania of independence in reality has infected all the spirits, and the poison has spread imperceptibly from the works of the philosophes all the way out to the village schools.”

I could go on, because the history is quite settled that the world — including, later the French Revolutionaries — were mesmerized by the world-historic contest in North America and its profound significance for human liberty. The founders knew this and had it on their minds, which is why it is so misleading to suggest they didn’t care about the cause of liberty elsewhere.

1776 is, was, and forever shall be the birthday of human liberty, not the merely the culmination of a grubby contest about taxes.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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