Friday, January 01, 2010

Was the American Revolution Fought Over Economics and Greed?

In the movie Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon's character Will tells a group of Ivy League students that if they want the "real" history of the American Revolution, they should read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

Howard Zinn, and a large number of other scholars and more than a few everyday Americans, believe that the United States of America was founded on greed. And that the American Revolution was orchestrated, due to the Founders' economic self interests.

The first time I came across this argument was when I was an 18-year old clerk in the Sears Catalog Department at Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Virginia. In the slow times, I would sometimes get into political debates with my fellow associates. In one such debate, a lady I worked with proceeded to tell me that the Founding Fathers were not noble. They were, in her words, greedy swindlers, slave owners, blah, blah, blah who founded the United States for their own selfish economic interests.

In the years since, I've come to learn that there are a rather large number of folks who believe this very thing. They, in fact, believe the very worst about our nation's founding. To them, the Founders were not good guys deserving of our respect and accolades. On the contrary, the Founders were (so say this group of cynical, usually left-wing critics) the villains of the story. Villains that set in motion one of the most repressive and evil nations in the history of mankind.

Time will not permit me to defend the United States overall against this kind of bashing. For this article, I will focus solely on the American Revolution and the charge that it was waged over economic interests.

First, the sheer lunacy of this charge is evident in the fact that the Founding Fathers put far more at risk in waging the American Revolution than they would have, had they remained loyal to the British Crown. For example, George Washington's economic standing was certainly impacted by the Navigation Acts. But as history professor Larry Schweikart points out, that was "nothing compared to the losses he could have suffered by leading the Continental Army." (Schweikart, Larry. 48 Liberal Lies About American History. New York: Sentinel, 2008).

Second, the core of the Declaration of Independence, the document which articulated America's reasons for breaking with Britain, focuses on political and social ideals rather than economic issues. Notwithstanding the slogan "No Taxation Without Representation," the tax issue was nowhere near the top of grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence!

Third, several studies have been done on the period, and most of which have shown that, while British economic policies were certainly inconvenient and challenging, they were not (by and large) repressive. The Americans didn't rise up in rebellion over taxes or economics. They rose up over the issue of self-government! Even the slogan "No Taxation Without Representation" demonstrates this. The issue wasn't taxation per se, but rather over which legislative body had the authority to tax. The war was over ideas, not money.

Fourth, political and social interests dominated the Constitutional Convention. In his landmark work We The People, historian Forrest McDonald demonstrated that, while the political and sectional interests of the states (admittedly with economic ramifications) were represented in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, not all economic interests were represented.

Finally, while it's true that self interest DID play a role in the American Revolution, this has been the case in every war and in every episode of history. And this isn't just with American history, but WORLD history.

General Washington himself acknowledged this, when he wrote: "I do not mean to exclude altogether the idea of patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it has done much in the present contest. But I will venture to assert, that a great and lasting war can never be supported on this principle alone. It must be aided by a prospect of interest, or some reward."

Human beings, by nature, are self-centered. This is why James Madison wrote: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." The Founders recognized this about people, including themselves.

The genius of the United States is that our nation is founded on a set of noble aspirations -- moral tenets that call us to be better than ourselves - and a "checks and balances" framework that recognizes, channels, and (in some cases) takes advantage of our primal, selfish instincts as human beings!

Highlighting the sins of America's past doesn't prove the United States to be a repressive nation. And pointing out that some profited from the Revolution doesn't prove that the Revolution was fought over greed.

The reason why we should respect and, yes, revere our Founders is that they recognized the reality of human nature, and decided to start a nation that would strive to rise above it! A nation that would call out the best in people - in Lincoln's words, "the better angels of our nature."

For this, we should thank and honor our Founders. Not condemn them.


Theodore Scott said...

"Finally, while it's true that self interest DID play a role in the American Revolution, this has been the case in every war and in every episode of history."

I agree. Every major conflict has people on all sides working for the money. That has no bearing on the morality of the conflict itself.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said. I just spent about 20 minutes convincing myself not to reply to a blog post on another site lambasting Lewis & Clark for bringing "genocide" to the West. A similar bunch of ahistorical twaddle. Really liked this post -- your site is a regular stop of mine!

Unknown said...

Of course wealthy people want to be free as well as those not so well off. However, it is clear from the articles of confederation that the founders were not interested in passing that freedom to the vast majority of Americans.

Anonymous said...

"Self determination".
No doubt what the South said when they decided to declare their independence from a (perceived to be) tyrannical Washington DC.
We were all British citizens in 1776, so it was self determination, but greater local representation would have come in time. Besides, there was NEVER majority support for the uprising. The patriot/traitors always remained a minority throughout the war, however abused they were, as they historical revisionists would have us all believe.
The taxes being levied were for defense (Britain nearly bankrupted itself during the 7 yrs war with France, keeping the French out of N. America), and no amount of representation would have changed that. Even with representation, the USA now spends more on defense than any other nation on Earth. The British had even offered various concessions after the war started, even to cut all tax altogether, but it was refused. Clearly those pushing this war forward had other ideas, and we know it was a free for all land grab west of the Appalachians, which the British had previously prevented.