The Corner

On the Revolutionary War

As I said in my original post, I don’t think it’s all that fruitful to relitigate the Revolutionary War. I still think that’s the case. But I think that some of the e-mail, particularly in response to my Voegelin guy’s treasonous provocative comments, is sufficiently interesting that I should post it. I have some thoughts at the end.

The non-slave holding, non-merchant, non-urban “yeomanry” did most of the bleeding and dying in the Revolutionary War, as they do in most wars – the elite just signed the documents, and wrote the history –

 

Of course, they didn’t have Hollywood back then, so the cocktail party circuit wasn’t as much fun!

And

Responding to your “favorite e-mail” of the day, I think your commenter assumes too much when he states that slavery would have been abolished peacefully in the 1830’s had we stayed a British colony.  The reason the slavery issue was so difficult to deal with is because a lot of people were making a lot of money from cotton and its associated industries.  Changing the political circumstances in the Americas wouldn’t have changed that reality.  Instead of Jefferson Davis owning a cotton plantation in Mississippi, you would have had Lord Jeffrey Davonshire owning it from his estate in England, and instead of having a seat in the US Senate, he would have had a seat in the House of Lords.  The American Revolution made it easier for Britain to abolish slavery, not harder.

And:

“Had I been in South Carolina in 1776 I would have been fighting with the loyalists.”

 

Nice idea except that the commercial interests in South Carolina were the loyalists. The revolutionaries were the yeoman farmers of the Piedmont. In fact, that is why the US put up such a lousy fight over Charleston and Savannah, the farmers in the up country refused to fight to save the Rice Kings of the low country. The British didn’t run into trouble until they left the low country.  Also, the British abandoned Boston in part because the countryside in New England was so hostile to them, they quickly realized after Lexington and Concord that New England was now unrecoverable. The strategy after that was to seize New York and later the South and limit the new independent colonies to the small area of New England, which would have been a pretty unsustainable country that posed little threat to British interests in North America.

 

Neither of those facts jives with your reader’s theory. 

And more on that point:

Jonah:  Finally, your posting about a topic I know something about.  I’m in the process of writing my dissertation on SC during the Revolution.  Your last post from the guy claiming that the revolutionaries of the Revolution were liberals of today is maybe half right, but once again, its much more complex.

 

True, many wealthy plantation owners were the officers and leaders of the whigs in South Carolina.  But there were many loyalists who were wealthy.  Just look at the confiscation acts during and after the war.  Rich Loyalists were thrown out of the state along with the poor.  Meanwhile the privates and sergeants on both sides were generally yeoman.   A lot of the loyalists in Charleston were wealthy merchants and very wealthy absentee landowners who ran their plantations from Britton or the Med.  Many, especially the rich, were compensated for their property.  They were all enlightened.  But they had PLENTY to do with the commerical interests in Charleston.

 

Actually, the backcounty loyalists were concentrated around Columbia, Orangeburg, Ninety Six, and many were German Lutherans.   The lowcountry whigs tended to be Scots and Scots Irish or Irish Protestants.   Loyalists in North Carolina, oddly, were recent immigrants from Scotland—why they when with England is a mystery to me since England had only defeated the clans at Culloden in the 1740s.

 

Meanwhile, way back in the upcountry around western NC and Tennessee they were strongly Whig, dealing with Native Americans (who the British tried to rile up to attack Whigs).  They were frontiersmen, Scot-Irish and sure as heck weren’t part of the enlightenment.  The leaders were speculators though. 

 

Also, there were a lot of people, traditionally a third of the population who changed sides depending on who was winning.

 

There is a growing movement among academics to re-visit loyalists and loyalism during the American Revolution.  The emphasis now is on how badly the whigs treated the loyalists, with the unstated message being what a nasty people Americans were/are.  Its just another form of revisionism being traded for the nationalism of the antebellum.  The fact is, neither side is clean.  Whigs and loyalists slaughtered, murdered, and burned out each other whenever there was the opportunity. Meanwhile there were banditti and outlyers like jackels, robbing the victims both.  While loyalists were mistreated, anyone with a sense of world history can see that they were not treated half as bad as the losers in other wars.  There are also dozens of examples of whigs coming to the defense of loyalists after the war.  It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t ethnic cleansing either.

 

I love that guy claiming that slavery would have been abolished peacefully had the Revolution not happened.  I guess he thinks that since we would have been English citizens that it would have been “peacefully” abolished.  That kind of sophmoric thinking is typical today.  He ignores the fact that cotton was king in the antebellum and we were selling it to England.  An interesting dynamic-the colonies I admit–but that’s just blowing smoke.  You could equally argue that slavery would have caused a revolution during the antebellum.

Finally, from a colleague:

Your reader has arrived at no less than the central paradox of (non-Burkean) conservatism: where athwart history do you stand, yelling stop? As an (even more) naïve 20-year-old I was talking with a friend who was my expert on the Kirk/Weaver school of conservatism. Having then been more of a Hayek/Nozick guy, I told him that at least we could agree that 1789 was a bad thing. And he said “Yes, but so was 1776,” and proceeded to make much the same argument as your reader. It gives one pause.

And so on.

Let me just say that I find this last bit from my colleague (and from my Voegelin guy) to be a very common argument in certain quarters of conservatism, and outside of fun contrafactual bull-session conversations, I find it pretty unappealing and even less persuasive.

I know there are interesting debates to be found on all of this, but my basic view is that American conservatives are defenders of a revolutionary tradition that begins in England and Scotland, found receptive soil in North America, and soon prospered. Indeed, that tradition prospered to the point where the colonists had to teach the colonizers a thing or two. It is a sad fact of the last 100 years that so many other colonists found their inspiration not in the American model of revolution, but in the French.

Of course, the principles of that tradition were not fully realized then (insert necessary to-be-sures about slavery and women’s rights), and are not perfectly adhered to now (insert table-thumping about the living constitution, the progressive revolution, and the permanent administrative state). Conservatives are not conservatives simply because they don’t like change and like things as they are. They are conservatives because they/we adhere to a body of ideas, principles, and customs that we believe are worth preserving. 

To be sure, temperamental or philosophical conservatives often want to conserve other things, too, be it in the realm of culture or sports or religion. But politically speaking, conservatism is only a partial philosophy of life. Indeed, the American Revolution — unlike the French Revolution — introduced the idea that the state has no business providing or enforcing a full philosophy of life for its citizens (as opposed to subjects). It was an anti-totalitarian revolution because it held that men should be free to chart their own course in life, individually or via local communities, so long as our actions do not violate the rights of others or run afoul of a few reasonable laws truly necessary for the common good.

That was a radical idea. It remains a radical idea. It is by no means wholly owned by the American Right. But the American Right is its greatest defender, at least insofar as the American Right continues to defend the idea of limited government represented by the founding. As I’ve said before, conservatism is about more than classical liberalism, but an American conservatism that doesn’t seek to conserve classical liberalism isn’t worth conserving.

For the record, my favorite articulation of why I think the American Revolution was super-mega-awesome is Irving Kristol’s essay “The American Revolution as a Successful Revolution,” of which you can find excerpts here.

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