Friday, November 26, 2010

Why Did The American Revolution Happen?

Ask the average American why the Revolutionary War happened in the first place and, if you don't get a "deer-in-the-headlights" blank stare, you'll likely hear something about taxes. Two hundred and thirty-four years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the myth that the American Revolution was essentially a tax revolt continues to persist. The reason behind this perpetual myth is likely threefold:
  1. Anti-tax conservatives, including the current "Tea Party" movement, enjoy portraying their cause as being in association with the nation's Founding Fathers.
  2. Critics of the Founders (and these critics are usually from the left side of the political spectrum, often the Far Left as is the case with the now late, though still sadly popular Howard Zinn) enjoy undermining the credibility and heroic stature of the Founders, with arguments that the Founders were motivated purely or primarily by greedy, monetary interests. 
  3. Sam Adams, the Sons of Liberty, and the Committees of Correspondence were extremely effective with their public relations campaigns of the 1760s. Let's face it. The Founders were so good at their protest against taxation without proper representation that it's helped shape and define the legacy of the Revolutionary War itself. 
The truth is far more complicated and nuanced than simple slogans or sound bytes. Unfortunately, most Americans haven't the patience or attention span to fully appreciate the truths and facts within history. While I certainly don't pretend to have complete knowledge of the truth myself, I do hope, in this brief blog post, to encourage you to seek out the correct information from the best sources, when it comes to historical questions such as this one. And in the case of the causes of the American Revolution, the best sources are those who started and fought the Revolution! 

Was The American Revolution About Taxes?

While one might argue that the social and political upheaval of the Revolutionary period extends from the French and Indian War of the 1760s through the middle of the 1800s, the actual war itself began April 19, 1775, when British troops clashed with armed colonists in the New England villages of Lexington and Concord. 

The bloodshed surrounding Lexington and Concord (and the long, painful British march back to Boston) took place ten years after the most egregious and hated of the taxes imposed on the colonies. That tax was the Stamp Act of 1765. While it certainly resulted in riots and mob violence, there was no war. There certainly was no movement for independence. That would come much later, after many "injuries and usurpations." 

The American Revolution was not about taxes. It was about the colonial assertion that they had a right, as British subjects, to govern themselves, as defined by the colonial charters and British constitutional tradition. The power to levy taxes was part of the overall debate over self-government. Only the duly elected assemblies within each colony (such as the Virginia House of Burgesses or the Massachusetts legislature) had the right to pass laws or levy taxes within each colony. That was the main issue at play, and all grievances stemmed from that. 

What Were The Colonial Grievances?

Anyone looking for an explanation of the causes of the American Revolution, at least from the perspective of the North American colonies, need only look as far as the Declaration of Independence. Laid out for the entire world to see are all the grievances which the colonists had against Great Britain. Here is what the Declaration of Independence has to say:
"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. 
  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  • He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
  • He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  • He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
  • He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
  • He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
  • He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  • He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
  • He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
  • He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
  • He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
  • For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
  • For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies
  • For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
  • He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  • He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
  • He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
  • He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

And there you have it....the colonial grievances against King George III and the British Parliament. Were some of the reasons perhaps over stated? Maybe. But that's for another blog post. The point here is that the Second Continental Congress very clearly laid out the reasons for their war for independence. Taxation was simply one of them. It was not the only one, nor was it the most important. And taxation would not have been an issue at all, were it not for the overriding disagreement over self-government.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Daniel Day Lewis to Play Spielberg's Lincoln

Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis will pick up a stovepipe hat to play one of history's most iconic figures. Steven Spielberg's long-awaited, long-discussed biopic film about America's 16th President has finally been given the green light. And for the main character, Spielberg turned to Lewis, who won Academy Awards for My Left Foot and There Will be Blood. Fans of American history movies will likely remember Lewis for Last of the Mohicans.

Liam Neeson, the original choice to play Abraham Lincoln, left the project some time ago. Neeson would've brought a lot of gravitas to the role, and it's a shame he backed out of the project. But put a beard on Daniel Day Lewis and a stovepipe hat on his head, and there is an uncanny resemblance to the legendary President. What's more, Lewis is an extremely talented actor. He may very well pull off the kind of mesmerizing portrayal of Lincoln that Paul Giamatti came close to achieving for the title character in John Adams and Laura Linney nailed for Abigail Adams.

My biggest concern for this biopic film project is that it strikes me as a better miniseries than a movie. Ted Turner's Gettysburg, an adaptation of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer winning The Killer Angels, worked well as a movie, because it focused on one battle in the American Civil War. By contrast, Gods and Generals faltered badly, because its scope was just too wide and its characters too rich to be adequately contained in a single film. This is a lesson that was likely not lost on the makers of John Adams, who chose to go the route of a miniseries rather than a single film.

But who am I to tell Steven Spielberg what he should do? :-) If he wants to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln, I'll gladly buy my ticket, grab some popcorn and a soda, and enjoy it! Let's hope that this movie finally gets made.

And then let's hope it's wildly successful, so Hollywood will then turn its attention to the man who was truly America's greatest President and most indispensable figure....George Washington.

Monday, November 08, 2010

David McCullough Takes Readers on a Stirring Adventure in 1776

The most important year in American history is 1776. Few can credibly dispute that statement, since 1776 is the year that the United States of America was officially created and the year its budding independence hung precariously in the balance. It was the year that the Second Continental Congress, driven by the able leadership of statesmen such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, formally severed ties with the British Empire and, thanks to the eloquent pen of Thomas Jefferson, articulated the principles upon which the United States would be established. Yet this assertion of independence, with all its grandiloquent references to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" could easily have been snuffed out, were it not for the courage and perseverance of George Washington and the sacrifice and dedication of the Continental Army.

McCullough's book opens by showing King George III's stubborn refusal to heed colonial grievances. McCullough doesn't portray King George III as a buffoon, for he was not that. But McCullough does show how the British leadership, embodied by George III and Lord North, had become inexcusably and tragically disconnected from their subjects across the Atlantic. McCullough's narrative encompasses the politics of the war, but he brings a special focus on the military situation, which looked quite dismal for the American side through most of 1776.

When we look back on 1776 from the twenty-first century, it is difficult for us to appreciate how close the nascent United States came to losing its War for Independence. David McCullough's 1776 helps readers overcome that difficulty. He grippingly transports the reader back to those tumultuous weeks and months of 1776. Thanks to McCullough's consummate research and gift with language, our minds can relate with at least some of the anxiety that confronted George Washington when he wrote that "few people understand the predicament we are in."

Though he is sometimes (and sadly) dismissed by some of the more snobby (often left-wing) "elites" of academia, David McCullough is one of the finest writers of our time. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (once for Truman and another for John Adams) and the National Book Award, David McCullough is simply amazing with his Royal Standard typewriter, which he purchased secondhand in 1965 - and still uses today!

The main complaint against McCullough is that he emphasizes the "story" part of the word "history," and he's unapologetic in his patriotism and respect for heroes -- something that resonates throughout his work. Left-wing historians, who resent what they disparagingly call the "Great Man" approach to history, simply can't abide this, even if the patriotism and respect for heroes is justified, as is certainly the case, when dealing with people like George Washington.

Anyone with even the slightest interest in American history should pick up a copy of this book. Books like 1776 are what cause people to deepen their appreciation for history. I highly recommend it.