Saturday, July 4, 2009

The American Revolution

So, the Roanoke colony failed in the late 1580's, and then Jamestown was founded in 1607 and the Plymouth colony in 1620, and gradually the English began to establish themselves in the Western Hemisphere. By the 1630's there was a college, Harvard, in Massachusets, by the 1670's the English power had supplanted the Dutch at New Amsterdam, and so it went, and the English colonies grew by leaps and bounds, crowding against the French settlement to to the north and West and against the Spanish to the south and West long before the American Revolution.

Was English rule in the colonies always, inevitably going to become intolerable to the colonists -- there was Bacon's Rebellion in the late 17th century -- or would the colonists wished to have remained British subjects in the absence of the specific mismanagement of things insyigated by the mad king George III and his ministers?

You asking me? I don't know. It seems to be the current fashion among historians to regard the colonists as Englishmen, who wanted nothing more than to enjoy the rights which Englishmen in England took for granted. But this view contests, has always contested against the opinion that the colonists were intrinsically different from Englishmen, which opinion prevailed from time to time in the past, and may or may not be the prevailing opinion in the History departments again in another few decades. (I'm not going to make a prediction here; a careful examination of predictions of the past has led me to the point where the only prediction I feel inclined to make is that in the future many people will continue to predict many things and that they will usually be wrong.) It seems to me that perceptions and historical depictions of the American Revolution are particularly fraught with preconceptions and political argument That very often the Revolution is described as being what the individual historian wants it to be: the precursor in spirit as well as in time to the French Revolution, or utterly distinct from it, associated with it only through ignorance. Truly a victory for freedom for ALL people; or the business dealings of a small clique of WASP's, plus a few of their cronies of Dutch descent; or something somewhere in between. I suppose that to a large extent it is legitimate to argue the Revolution is also what it became, whether the Founding Fathers had it in mind or not. On the other hand, does it make sense to see a fulfillment of the promise of 1776 in 1863, when slavery was abolished in the British Empire long before 1863?

I tend to see a lot of the rhetoric about American freedom, specifically American freedom, as somewhere between dubious and downright ridiculous. It seems to me that it amounts to a large extent to the Smithian freedom for a small group of capitalists to squeeze the rest of us, and for the rest of us to either play ball, or starve, or rot in prison. Nice freedom, Ben, George! Thomas may have been a little more progressive than that, or maybe I'm still looking at Thomas through rose-colored glasses. Thomas didn't free his slaves, after all, stirring though his writing often was.

Accurately or not, a lot of Enlightenment philosophy and highfalutin' rhetoric was associated with the American Revolution since well before 1776, and with the Dutch, English, Mexican, Russian, Chinese and Nicaraguan revolutions as well. The problem is, a lot of that Enlightenment philosophy doesn't make any sense, doesn't have much relation to reality. Man is not born free, he is born covered in slime and blood and usually screaming in horror, and in need of constant care and supervision. I subscribe to the Hobbesian, not the Lockeian and Rousseauian view of nature. Freedom is something which we ATTAIN to some degree if we are fortunate, and consists in no small degree of OVERCOMING nature.

Except that it's nowhere that simple either. For instance, I see no reason for this arbitrary distinction between "natural" and "man-made." As if we were somehow apart from other animals. Singled out by God for a special destiny or some such nonsense. I don't think that the arbitrary nature of the distinction between "man-made" and "natural" has occurred to most people yet.

So anyway, the blather of Locke and Rousseau about the supposedly noble nature of man in "nature," corrupted by awful, awful civilization, was in the air a lot during the American Revolution, and perhaps even more so in Europe in the observation and misunderstanding from afar of the American Revolution. The French Revolutionaries, many of them anyway, may have believed that they were doing exactly the same things that the American Revolutionaries had done.

I could go on. Happy holiday.

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