In the coming months, America may plunge more deeply into foreign wars despite Obama’s apparent reluctance to do so before the Presidential elections. In an AntiWar.com article (July 17) entitled “US Won’t Intervene in Syria Until After November Vote,” Middle East commentator Jason Ditz reports, “Pro-Syrian-opposition lobbyists say the Obama Administration has warned Syrian rebel factions as well as other pro-war allies that they will not intervene in a serious way against the Assad regime until after the November US election.” And, then, there are escalating tensions with Iran.
If a war or intervention is declared, then it will be promoted as a noble cause in much the same manner as the occupation of Afghanistan was sold as a way to protect Afghan women from the brutal Taliban. When anti-war critics deny the possibility of a ‘noble war’, the American Revolution is likely to be invoked as proof of its feasibility. This counter-example is commonplace within the libertarian and conservative movements, where the American Revolution tends to be venerated. “War is the health of the state,” libertarians admit, but somehow the American Revolution is slotted into a different category than all other wars. The urge to do so is understandable. How can you not like a struggle inspired by the writings of John Locke, Algernon Sidney and Thomas Paine? How can you not support the spunky rebellion of 13 colonies — 2 1/2 million people — against the arrogant British Empire?
To answer, it is necessary to examine the principles of the Revolution and compare them to the conduct of the Revolution, especially as it progressed from being a rebellion and became instead a war.
What is the difference? A revolution is “an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.” It is most often a response to the extreme injustice of an authority. A war is “a conflict carried on by force of arms, as between nations or between parties within a nation; warfare, as by land, sea, or air.” It often has no connection to rebellion against injustice.
THE IDEALS OF THE REVOLUTION
The nobility ascribed to the American Revolution rests upon the principles enunciated by the Declaration of Independence. The central principle is that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Having established its moral basis, the Declaration goes on to explain the specific grievances against British rule which “absolved” the “united colonies” from “all allegiance to the British Crown.”
In short, the Declaration justified a rebellion for the purpose of throwing off an occupying power. What followed was a war not only against Britain but against fellow-colonists who preferred British rule. In short, against fellow-colonists who politically disagreed even if the disagreement was peaceful. Like every war, the War for Independence involved massive violations of individual rights and the rapid growth of the state. Thus, as the Revolution became a war, it violated the core principle of the Declaration that was its justification: namely, the equal and inalienable rights of all men. The War of Independence should be scrutinized with the same critical eye as any other war.
To briefly give a sense of the scope of the war’s ultimate betrayal of the Declaration’s principles, consider merely a few of the massive violations of rights that occurred.
1. As a means of financing its Army, the Continental Congress issuing approximately $226 million in paper money. The states joined in by putting out about $200 million of their own bills of credit. Hyperinflation resulted, with people becoming reluctant to use the new currency. Congress recommended forcing them to use it. Eventually (1780), Congress devalued its currency at the rate of $40 of paper money to $1 of specie. The devaluation did not prevent Congress from cranking up the printing press again. Such machinations gave rise to the saying “not worth a Continental.”
2. The states north of Maryland (and including Maryland) adopted price controls in one form or another. In Rhode Island, for example, anyone who bought an item at an “unapproved” price would forfeit the cost of it — half would go to the state, half would go to the informer.
3. Circa 1765, American merchants were estimated to validly owe English creditors some 24 million pounds sterling. When the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush — an early advocate of independence — listed five motives inspiring Whigs (those who supported rebellion), one motivation was, “an expectation that a war with Great Britain would cancel all British debts.” Rush continued, “There were certainly Whigs from the facility with which the tender laws enabled debtors to pay their creditors in depreciated paper money.”
4. If the American Revolution was a war for “no taxation without representation,” then it did not apply that principle with any consistency. Some 400,000 residents of the colonies — approximately 17% of the population — were black slaves. Not only did the War for Independence not free them, it led to the United States Constitution which embedded their slavery into the legal fabric of the new nation. There can be no greater “taxation without representation” than to ‘confiscate’ all that a person has while permitting him no voice. (Note: when the British offered freedom to blacks who served in their army, the rebels followed suit. Nevertheless, both sides routinely disregarded such promises.)
Undoubtedly, many colonials rebelled for no other reason than a sincere desire to determine their own lives. But using violence to say “no” to tyranny almost always leads to implementing other political and social ends through the continued use of violence. The treatment of colonials who were loyalists is an example.
At the time of the American Revolution, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of colonists were Loyalists who preferred British rule, often because they were members of the Church of England. The Loyalists consisted of some 500,000 people. After the war, they were persecuted by state governments even if they had taken no action to aid the British. They were persecuted for politically disagreeing. Every state passed laws to confiscate their property. Approximately 100,000 loyalists fled America because their person and wealth were not safe from former neighbors.
Much more could be written about the inequities of the American Revolution as it became a civil war. But even from a few examples, it should be clear that war cannot be noble. Revolutions can; they can be the collective equivalent of saying “no” to injustice. The longer revolutions take, however, the more likely they are to become wars. And wars, including the War for Independence, are violations both of nobility and of the principles announced in the Declaration of Independence.