Although undoubtedly one of the most glorious events in history, the American Revolution was also a bloody mess. It gave rise to a war that raged for fully half a dozen years, claiming the life of one colonist in a hundred. Proportionally speaking, it generated five times as many political exiles per capita as the French Revolution and saw roughly the same amount of revolutionary confiscations of private property. But if anyone questions whether it was worth it, he or she need only take a look at political conditions north of the border. Canada, where most of America’s counterrevolutionary émigrés wound up, is today an increasingly authoritarian society in which elections are stolen, political corruption is rampant and religious fundamentalists hurl thunderbolts while liberals scurry for cover. Thanks to its infinitely more progressive foundations, the United States is the opposite–a sunny, relaxed social democracy admired the world over for its humane attitudes and nonviolent ways.
Er, perhaps we ought to take this once more from the top.
If the American Revolution was the first liberal democratic revolution in history, how is it that the republic it spawned has been so consistently illiberal and undemocratic? Contrary to what you may have read in this publication and others, the problem did not begin with George W. Bush or even Richard Nixon. Rather, the most striking thing about liberalism over the longue durée of US history has been its persistent weakness rather than its strength. Progressives like to dwell on the high points–the Civil War, the New Deal, the movements for social justice of the 1950s and ’60s. But they forget the long sloughs of despond in between, periods in which abolitionists could barely show their face without being beaten or killed; leftists were repressed with Mussolini-like thoroughness; and hysterical crusades against sex, alcohol and drugs followed one another in rapid succession. True, liberalism did have its moment in the sun for a few decades following the New Deal. But since the great breakdown of the 1960s, liberals have increasingly reverted to their default mode of pessimism and despair.
The “democratic deficit” between the United States on the one hand and Canada and Western Europe on the other thus continues to expand nearly as rapidly as the current-account deficit. This alone would suggest that America’s democratic foundations are not as sturdy as they’ve been made out to be and that our great founding moment–1776 and all that–deserves a much-belated second look. But the historians, at least those who show up regularly on the bestseller lists, do not agree. While some have turned out tough-minded works, the mood in general has turned soft and celebratory. Instead of careful dissections, they have given us giddy tomes trumpeting “the radicalism of the American Revolution”–not to mention the ineffable genius of a seemingly endless parade of Founding Fathers, from George Washington to Gouverneur Morris and other backbenchers. Although one might expect liberal historians to buck the trend toward filiopietism, they seem intent on serving up an alternative version of the national mythology, one emphasizing the role of slaves, indebted farmers, rebellious housewives, etc. But while they disagree about the factors that have made America so great, they don’t quarrel with the assumption of American greatness. Post-9/11, we are all patriots now, liberals no less than conservatives.
Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution and Harvey Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America are examples of this sort of progressive me-too-ism, while David McCullough’s 1776 epitomizes the kind of historiography that in today’s nationalistic climate sells like hot cakes. Nash’s book is the most ambitious of the three, the most well-intentioned and therefore the most disappointing. Rather than focusing on the immediate break with Great Britain, he takes a long view of the American Revolution as a social process unfolding over decades. By the 1740s, he notes, conditions in British North America were growing more and more turbulent. In New Jersey, farmers were up in arms over conflicting land titles issued some eight decades earlier by both the Dutch West India Company and James, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II. In Boston, mobs took to the streets in response to the Royal Navy’s habit of sending ashore press gangs to kidnap local workingmen to fill out depleted crews, while a few years later angry Scotch-Irish settlers from western Pennsylvania marched on Quaker-dominated Philadelphia to complain that the provincial government was not doing enough to protect them from the ravages of wild Indians (pausing en route to slaughter and mutilate “twenty Christianized and entirely peaceable Conestoga Indians,” Nash notes, just to show they weren’t kidding).