The American Revolution Revisited

by Wendy McElroy

One of the icons of the libertarian movement is the War for Independence, commonly referred to as the American Revolution. "War is the health of the state," they admit, but somehow the American Revolution is slotted into a different category than all other wars. It was the noble war; it was the war for the libertarian principles of "natural rights" and "no government without the consent of the governed."

Even Canadians such as myself fall prey to glamorizing the American Revolution. How can you not like a struggle that was inspired by the writings of John Locke, Algernon Sidney and Thomas Paine? How can you not support the rebellion of 13 colonies - 2 1/2 million people - against the British Empire? The very word "empire" makes you want to spit on the sidewalk.

But war IS the health of the state, and there is danger in deifying any historical event. Every war involves the massive violation of individual rights and the rapid growth of the state. Although I admire many aspects of the War for Independence, I wish to caution against exempting it from the same criticism that should be leveled at any war.

The briefest way to dramatize why libertarians should have mixed feelings toward the American Revolution is to introduce various under-discussed aspects of it: (They are listed in no particular order of importance.) To wit:

1. As a means of financing the Continental Army, the Continental Congress ended up issuing approximately $226 million dollars in paper money. The states joined in by putting out about $200 million dollars 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 Continenal."

2. All the states north of and including Maryland adopted price controls of one sort 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. At the time of the rebellion, some 400,000 residents of the colonies - approximately 17% of the population - were black slaves. The War for Independence did not envision freeing these slaves. Indeed, the Constitution later enshrined this "peculiar institution" by the 3/5ths rule, by which a black slave counted for 3/5ths of a white man for purposes of the political representation of whites.

4. At the time of the Stamp Act of 1765, it has been estimated that American merchants owed English creditors some 24 million pounds sterling. When the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush - an early advocate of independence - listed five mo- tives inspiring Whigs (those who supported rebellion), one of the motivations was "It was said that there were Whigs ... from 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."

5. If the American Revolution was a war for "no taxation without representation," it should be noted that the rebellion was not against taxation per se, but against nonrepresentative government. Yet the government established by the rebels did not represent those it governed either. For example, slaves and women were not represented. Indeed, only white men with a certain amount of property were included in this non-universal suffrage.

6. Loyalists - Americans who were loyal to Britain - were persecuted by state governments, whether or not they had taken any action to aid the British. By the end of the war, every state had passed laws to confiscate the property of loyalists. Approximately 100,000 loyalists fled the country.

7. For anarchists, a stumbling block of the American Revolution must be that it established a new state - albeit a weak and a limited one. But even this comparatively innocuous government quickly passed such measures such as the Ordinance of 1787, by which massive tracts of land were granted to speculative land companies at bargain prices. Already Congress was riddled with corruption.

Much more could be written about the inequities of the American Revolution. On the other hand, much could be written about the many colonials who rose in rebellion against Britain for no other reason than that they wished to determine their own lives. In focusing on the negative aspects of the American Revolution, it has not been my purpose to engage in hero-bashing or to demean what I still consider to be a relatively happy event in world history.

My purpose is to warn libertarians against the tendency to deify any war - the tendency to claim any war as a libertarian event. I find myself wishing that the American Revolution had been fought to establish a free society and not a better government. That would have been true independence. It would have been a true revolution.

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