I’ve been pretty upfront that I believe the American Revolution was unjust. Not 100% unjust. I concede some very good things that might not have happened, did happen or happened more quickly because of the Revolution. I also don’t claim that but for the Revolution, we would be right now sipping Molson’s and complaining about wait times and doctor shortages imposed by our single-payer system but being grateful that it’s not as bad as the National Health Service. But I believe the war was unjust enough that if I were around back then and had the same sensibilities as today and had the courage of my convictions, I would have opposed it.

That’s not a particularly brave or shocking thing to say in 2016. I don’t fear tar and feathering, which was by the way a really, really horrific practice and not the comical thing it used to sound like to me. I’m not going to lose my property be and forced into exile or shunned.

But my position takes some people aback, even my liberal and leftist friends. Some of my very liberal friends who in other contexts threaten to move to Canada get offended when I say the war was unjust. #notallleftistsorliberals , of course. I know a Trotskyist whose take on the Revolution is probably “something something bourgeois elites something something.” And there’s always the Howardzinnians, but even they claim the Revolution itself was just but that it was counter-revolutioned. (Actually, I’ve never read Zinn, so I don’t know exactly what he argues.)

Why bother harping on this? Even if you concede that the Revolution was an unjust war, there are other unjust wars the US has engaged in, usually wars more unjust, and certainly more recently, than that unfortunate escapade. And the Revolutionary War was a really long time ago. The scars have been healed. If celebrating it brings some people comfort, then why be “that guy” who gripes about it? If the founding document that allegedly justifies that war inspires or at least provides ideological cover for causes I support, then why diss it?

One reason why I bother: It’s the founding moment of the story we tell ourselves as a nation. There’s a holiday dedicated to celebrating it. I like my days off as much as anyone, and I feel fortunate to have a job that gives me July 4 as a paid holiday. But I’m not too keen on celebrating the type of political activism that gang of criminals in Boston engaged in and that gang of more polite apologists in Philadelphia “ennobled” with their declaration.

However, I can’t hide that I get a certain contrarian thrill from saying I oppose the Revolution. I agree with Kevin Vallier when he warns against the “contrarian trap.” I think contrarianism, as contrarianism, is a bad thing.

I end on “however, maybe I’m being merely contrarian” and not on “I think I’m right” because I don’t know whether I’m being contrarian or not and it’s best not to think too highly of oneself. But I do believe that war was unjust and we shouldn’t celebrate it.

Category: Statehouse

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17 Responses to Dissing the Fourth

  1. KenB says:

    I think contrarianism, as contrarianism, is a bad thing.

    You’re completely wrong about that. 😛

    More seriously: if there’s near-unanimity on a question that isn’t an empirical or logical fact, then there’s likely some sort of extra-rational factor driving the agreement. While a contrary opinion won’t necessarily be more correct, it will generally be more valuable — it will help to illuminate the assumptions and biases supporting the majority view.

  2. mike shupp says:

    An argument in favor of the Revolution: That in the nature of things, the sort of people who rose to political power in Britain were focused on British political issues rather than those that mattered to colonists, that that the British government was more concerned with Britain’s ongoing struggles with the French and the Dutch and the Spanish rather than the doings of colonists, that British economic policy was more intent on empowering the state and enriching British merchants than improving the lot of colonists.

    One could also add, that in fact “the British” meant “the English”, a race long noted for its ill-regard of Welsth, Irish, Cornish, Scots, and other lesser breeds — such as the mongrel hordes of America. And one could further point to the importance of royal favoritism and noble birth in acquiring and wielding power in Britain — properties which such distant relatives as Americans were seldom apt to gain.

    In short, continued rule by England did not bode well for the American colonists, who had heightened — and perhaps unrealistic — notions of their importance and prospects for achieving their ambitions. British and American societies were drawing apart from one another, and poor government would be least of the bad consequences to follow.

    If such a fissure in interests and attitudes could not be bridged, then surely both sides would benefit from acceptance of the juncture, by a gentle relinquishment of interest in each others’ affairs, if that were practical, or by open revolt if necessity gave no better choice.

    Which isn’t quite 18th century way of expressing things, but I suspect it may have been an 18th century way of thinking about revolt and independence. It seems to fit with what I recall of Ben Franklin’s political evolution.

    And now, 250 years later, I can look at that notion myself and not find much to argue with. We’ve got Australia and Canada and India and Ireland and Jamaica and Kenya and Malaysia and New Zealand and Palestine and Rhodesia and South Africa and Surinam to consider as examples. And we can make a guesstimate of what America would be today, if we were still British subjects. And it isn’t lovely.

    If England had won, the revolting colonies would today be a minor rump of a nation, or several nations, spread along the Atlantic seaboard, bordered by French and Spanish and other English nations. There’d be no giant country spread from sea to shining sea, no financial behemoths on Wall Street, no Silicon Valley, no Arsenal of Democracy, no bulwark against the totalitarian forces which flowed out of Europe last century … We’d be a minor dependency of what has become a minor power.

    Fortunately, we had a revolution, and even better, we won. And in the long run, it turned out for the British themselves.

    • James K says:

      It’s not like the UK itself was benefiting much from the colonies either – In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith notes that they barely broke even in peace and were ruinously expensive in war.

    • The first half of your comment is particularly strong, especially as a case for independence, but not, in my opinion, for war as a means to realize it. Even after the Coercive Acts and even after Lexington and Concord, I don’t see the justification for the war. I do think that the Coercive Acts made the war inevitable, though, and you could argue that my complaint against the war is the complaint against an inevitability and it’s better at that point to accede to what is necessary. I’m not there, but it is a point I can’t deny.

      As to what would have happened had the US not revolted, I’m of two minds. I believe a country from sea to shining sea eventually turned out to be a good thing. It was a continent-wide free trade zone that made and makes a lot of prosperity possible, and that might be one condition for things like the Silicon Valley. What’s more, at least some members of the Revolutionary generation envisioned something like that and the commerce clause of the 1787 constitution put that in play.

      On the other hand, even for the transcontinental visionaries, such an outcome wasn’t assured, and the outcome turned out to require conquest of other peoples and wars on very flimsy pretexts. Maybe things turned out okay, but the road there was fraught with cruelty and lawlessness. Even so, I’d have to acknowledge I benefit from that tradition. And you’re right, the UK probably ultimately benefited than was harmed by US independence.

      You didn’t mention slavery, but I will. I find it hard to believe the American colonies staying in the empire would have given up slavery by 1865 and that the eventual freedom that would have happened would have been more like a perpetual Jim Crow, with fewer formal guarantees for freed persons and their descendants than we’d have now. All that, I say, despite the example we have the UK imposing abolitionism in the 1830s in its West Indies colonies. And if all that is too speculative, I have to concede that some colonies abolished slavery during the Revolution and largely because of Revolutionary ideals, and others set themselves on the path toward gradual emancipation. I can’t deny that.

      For the US as an arsenal of Democracy and bulwark against totalitarianism. I’m less convinced that that serves as justification for the war. The Revolutionary generation didn’t know there’d be a Hitler and Soviet Union to oppose. And one argument is to be made that without US entry into WWI, the conditions for WWII might not have been there. I hedge with “might” because I don’t know what would have happened.

      I suppose, given the very real consequences you point out, I *should* at least celebrate independence, if not the war that brought it about.

      Thanks, by the way, for engaging me. You bring a very strong argument for independence, and maybe even for the war.

  3. Michael Drew says:


    Where are you in the broad cause/concept of an independent Union made up of former British colonies plus expansions on the American continent, independent of the particulars of how and when the one that exists initially came into existence?

    Because it seems like that, if you wanted it to be, could be a basis to go forward where you don’t have to dissent from the celebrations of American independence, but also don’t have to shelve your disapproval of the justness of the timing, reasons, and means of United States’ fight for independence as it actually happened.

    All this would require is a shift in our understanding of what is being celebrated, that I think would be a shift toward a more accurate understanding thereof.

    July the Fourth is our Independence Day, and when we say that we’re not messing around. We don’t call it Declaration Day; we don’t call it Revolution Day. We don’t call it Paul Revere Day or Boston Harbor Day. Or Jeffereson Day or Washington Day – they have their own days. It’s Independence Day, and that’s what we’re celebrating. The rest of that is, well, it’s more than mere trappings, but it is fully subsidiary to our celebrating our independence. If other events and statements and men had led us to Independence, those are what we would celebrate as associat X historical artifacts to independence. Full stop. I would submit that our celebration of our independence is not – at all – about the justness of the particular case we had for independence (indeed, Revolution!) at the time we sought it, but about a belief, a feeling really, that, knowing what we know now, we’re simply glad to be an indep needn’t country, not a part of the dominion of a kingdom. Yes, we want to imbue that feeling with a sense of moral justification, but ultimately I don’t think that if you asked most July Fourth revelry whether they feel their celebration is hingd on the rightness of the colonists’ case for rebellion in the 1770s, they would say that’s it is at all. They would say that it is based on a sense that independence is 1) to our benefit, and 2) justified in broad strokes by the notion that an island can’t rule a continent that is peopled by inhabitants able to govern and protect themselves.

    So if the United States had gained indepndence in 1900 instead, I think we would celebrate for reasons largely unchanged from why we celebrate today. But all the specifics would be different. To me, this indicates that the specifics of our celebration inasmuch as they make reference to all the mthose around 1776 and the Fourth and Revere’s ride and just all that, are really pretty peripheral to what we’re really celebrating when we celebrate independence.

    Now, maybe the very general idea and cause of American independence, not just the particulars of our actual independence history, leave you entirely unmoved. That would obviously be reason to continue to except yourself from celebrating it, and indeed to oppose others doing so. Moreover, none of this is reason to concede or even stop arguing about the justness of the particular path timindepnd nice we took. But I think this clarification of what is being celebrated is important. We don’t celebrate independence because we think the particulars of the move toward it were justified in 1776. We celebrate 1776 and the Fourth and so forth because we want and are thankful for our independence, and ose happen to be the particulars of how it came to be. I think it’s important to see that no national independence process is going to be perfectly justified in all its particulars, and nations that enjoy independence all will celebrate their particulars and work to lend them justification in hindsight through national myth. And all but a very few such justifications will be easy to poke holes in. Except in case of real grave injustice and atrocity, I don’t think that’s really such a problem. I guess I’m kind of grading on a curve there – nations will be nations and so forth. I may just not be a radical enough thinker (or not inclined to make that my operative viewpoint) to want to dwell on the problems that may in fact be lurking in that allowance.

    Are the persuasive particulars of The United States’ self-justifying origin myth especially easy to poke holes in? Perhaps; I have no idea, to be honest with you. But I do think I know that when we celebrate our independence, we’re not celebrating that persuasiveness – not of the particular historical myth – anyway, so it doesn’t matter that much. Rather, we’re just celebrating independence because we like it, and accepting at possibly even greater than face value whatever is offered in terms of a specific justifying myth to allow,us to feel that not only are we glad we have something we want, but also that we’re not unjustified in having it, because that would be a bit (but really only a bit) of a damper on the party of we were (unjustified).

    But even if the particular myth were fully shot down – like I’m talking about it were proven no one named Thomas Jefferson ever lived and the Declaration of Indepndence was the creation of a Golden Age Hollywood movie producer – we would still feel justified in having indep nance, from Great Britain at least, because an island shouldn’t indefinitely rule a continent filled with capable people. And we’d celebrate that independence on whatever was the appointed day, and the reasons we would do so wouldn’t be much different from the reasons we currently do so.

    Because we’re glad we have our independence. Not because we were right in 1776.

    • Michael Dr says:

      On a tablet, no time to edit. Sorry. Think of these as the vague and inscrutable scratchings of an institutionalized lunatic, and give them equal consideration.

    • Michael Drew, here’s what I see as the tl;dr (although I read the entire comment) of what you’re saying: We can celebrate US independence without necessarily celebrating the war that brought it about, and those who celebrate the 4th probably see themselves more as celebrating independence than the war.

      You may very well have a point. If it had to happen (which is how I interpret Paine’s “how can an island rule a continent?”….it was about inevitability….however, I’ve never actually read Paine) then it was going to happen, and if it had to be by war, then it had to be by war.

      That point–and I think it’s also Mike Shupp’s point above, or at least part of what he’s arguing–is worth considering. At the very least, it behooves me either to separate my complaints against the war and my gratefulness for independence OR to argue why we shouldn’t celebrate independence in addition to criticizing the war.

      I should confess to a dislike of national celebrations of independence. I’m confused by patriotism and by what it means to “love” a country. But that’s not a reason why we shouldn’t celebrate independence. It is, however, a consideration distinct from whether the war that brought about independence was just, and if I insist on disputing independence celebrations in a discussion on the justness of the war, then I’m moving the goal posts, which isn’t right.

  4. greginak says:

    Did you see this Gabe?


    It’s only Vox but still….

    • Thanks for the link. That piece looks really familiar. I wonder if it’s a reprint from something else I read earlier? At any rate, Matthews takes a different approach from mine. He focuses on what would’ve happened–or what was likely to happen–and I focus (mostly) on the justifications for effecting what happened.

      Here are my tentative answers to his points, in reverse order:

      1. The American colonies would’ve been a parliamentary democracy (and that would be better than what we have now). I think that outcome would be more likely than not, but whether it’s better or not is more disputable than Matthews piece allows for. A parliamentary system probably does make it easier to pass laws, but parliamentary is not synonymous with “unitary,” and I imagine that even a British-overseen American dominion would have a federal system with the types of veto points (plus the veto point of disallowal by the judicial committee of the privy council in UK). So, even assuming efficiency in passing laws is a good thing, I’m not sure that efficiency (or as much as Matthews seems to think is desirable) is what we’d get in this case.

      2. Native Americans would be treated bad, but less bad. Not much to argue with there. It seems plausible to me.

      3. Slavery would have likely ended sooner and with less bloodshed. I agree with Matthews on how slavery worked in the southern colonists’ drive for independence. But I have two reservations about his counter-factuals.

      First, on the likelihood of that happening, I’m not as sure as Matthews seems to be. My hypothesis (because this is far from my specialty) is that one reason abolition worked (to the extent it did work) in the West Indies was that the white slaveholder class didn’t have much of a choice but to accept it. It was outnumbered by slaves in proportions higher than even the slave-majority colonies in America, like S. Carolina and (later) Mississippi (and Alabama?….I forget). An 1830s style attempt would have likely provoked bloodshed in a war for independence.

      Second, Matthews seems to assume that freedom is freedom. As we know from the American example, freedom was followed by some enforcement of the freedom and some nascent successes at realizing that freedom politically, followed by Jim Crow, followed by a long struggle to realize the terms of that freedom. I believe a “bloodless” or “almost bloodless” granting of abolition in a hypothetical American Dominion would have created an underclass with fewer theoretical protections and guarantees for freed persons. In fact, that might have been the necessary precondition for making the abolition grant bloodless. The initial plans for abolition in the West Indies demonstrate how this might have happened in America. Abolition was first accompanied with a process called “apprenticeship,” which was basically temporary slavery to ease the transition to freedom. Apprenticeship was soon abandoned, but I imagine something like it, but more permanent, would have been ensconced in the American Dominion.

      Even then, the outcome might be “better” if it meant fewer people killed in a bloody civil war. But the balancing act of which outcome is better is thereby different from what Matthews suggests.

      I realize I’m being unfair to Matthews. I don’t know much about Vox, but I imagine that it’s not the right venue for long form considerations such as I delve into in my overly long blog comment here.

      • greginak says:

        I think he is wrong about slavery. Having the South as part of the UK would have led to more, far more, resistance to abolition. If the UK had still pushed for abolition then we still would have had a civil war at that time and then who knows where everything falls after that.

  5. ScarletNumber says:

    Wasn’t this in Dazed and Confused?

    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aF3BXL1cQYY&w=560&h=315%5D

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