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The American Revolution

Mises Daily: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 by

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[A lecture delivered c. 1900 and published in 1906 in Lectures on Modern History. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]

The rational and humanitarian enlightenment of the 18th century did much for the welfare of mankind, but little to promote the securities of freedom. Power was better employed than formerly, but it did not abdicate.

In England, politically the most advanced country, the impetus which the English Revolution gave to progress was exhausted, and people began to say, now that the Jacobite peril was over, that no issue remained between parties which made it worthwhile for men to cut each others' throats. The development of the Whig philosophy was checked by the practical tendency to compromise. Compromise distinguished the Whig from the Roundhead, the man who succeeded from the man who failed, the man who was the teacher of politics to the civilized world from the man who left his head on Temple Bar.

The Seven Years' War renewed the interrupted march by involving America in the concerns of Europe, and causing the colonies to react on the parent state. That was a consequence which followed the Conquest of Canada and the accession of George III. The two events, occurring in quick succession, raised the American question.

A traveler who visited America some years earlier reports that there was much discontent, and that separation was expected before very long. That discontent was inoperative whilst a great military power held Canada.

Two considerations reconciled the colonists to the disadvantages attending the connection with England. The English fleet guarded the sea against pirates; the English army guarded the land against the French. The former was desirable; the latter was essential to their existence. When the danger on the French side disappeared, it might become very uncertain whether the patrol of the Atlantic was worth the price that America had to pay for it. Therefore Montcalm foretold that the English, if they conquered the French colonies, would lose their own.

Many Frenchmen saw this, with satisfaction; and the probability was so manifest that Englishmen saw it too. It was their interest to strengthen their position with new securities, in the place of that one supreme security which they had lost by their victory at Quebec. That victory, with the vast acquisition of territory that followed, would be no increase of imperial power if it loosened the hold on Atlantic colonies. Therefore, the policy of the hour was to enforce the existing claims and to obtain unequivocal recognition of English sovereignty.

The most profitable method of doing it was in the shape of heavier taxation; but taxes were a small matter in comparison with the establishment of undisputed authority and unquestioning submission. The tax might be nominal, if the principle was safe. Ways and means would not be wanting in an empire which extended from Hudson's Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. For the moment the need was not money but allegiance. The problem was new, for the age of expansion had come suddenly, in East and West, by the action of Pitt; and Pitt was no longer in office to find the solution.

Among the Whigs, who were a failing and discredited party, there were men who already knew the policy by which since then the empire has been reared — Adam Smith, Dean Tucker, Edmund Burke. But the great mass went with the times, and held that the object of politics is power, and that the more dominion is extended, the more it must be retained by force. The reason why free trade is better than dominion was a secret obscurely buried in the breast of economists.

Whilst the expulsion of the French from their transatlantic empire governed the situation, the immediate difficulty was brought on by the new reign. The right of searching houses and ships for contraband was conveyed by certain warrants called writs of assistance, which required no specified designation, no oath or evidence, and enabled the surprise visit to be paid by day or night. They were introduced under Charles II, and had to be renewed within six months of the demise of the crown. The last renewal had been at the death of George II; and it was now intended that they should be efficacious, and should protect the revenue from smugglers.

Between 1727 and 1761 many things had changed, and the colonies had grown to be richer, more confident, more self-respecting. They claimed to extend to the Mississippi, and had no French or Spaniards on their borders. Practically, there was no neighbor but England, and they had a patrimony such as no Englishman had dreamt of. The letter of the law, the practice of the last generation, were no argument with the heirs of unbounded wealth and power, and did not convince them that they ought to lose by the aid which they had given against France.

The American jurists argued that this was good by English law, but could not justly be applied to America, where the same constitutional safeguards did not exist — where the cases would be tried by judges without a jury, by judges who could be dismissed at pleasure, by judges who were paid by fees which increased with the amount of the property confiscated, and were interested in deciding against the American importer and in favor of the revenue. That was a technical and pedestrian argument which every lawyer could understand, without passing the limits of accustomed thought.

Then James Otis spoke, and lifted the question to a different level, in one of the memorable speeches in political history. Assuming, but not admitting, that the Boston customhouse officers were acting legally, and within the statute, then, he said, the statute was wrong. Their action might be authorized by parliament; but if so, parliament had exceeded its authority, like Charles with his ship money, and James with the dispensing power. There are principles which override precedents. The laws of England may be a very good thing, but there is such a thing as a higher law.

The court decided in favor of the validity of the writs; and John Adams, who heard the judgment, wrote long after that in that hour the child Independence was born. The English view triumphed for the time, and the governor wrote home that the murmurs soon ceased. The states, and ultimately the United States, rejected general warrants; and since 1817 they are in agreement with the law of England. On that point, therefore, the colonies were in the right.

Then came the larger question of taxation. Regulation of external traffic was admitted. England patrolled the sea and protected America from the smuggler and the pirate. Some remuneration might be reasonably claimed; but it ought to be obtained in such a way as not to hamper and prohibit the increase of wealth. The restrictions on industry and trade were, however, contrived for the benefit of England and to the injury of her colonies.

They [the Americans] demanded that the arrangement should be made for their mutual advantage. They did not go so far as to affirm that it ought to be to their advantage only, irrespective of ours, which is our policy with our colonies at the present time. The claim was not originally excessive. It is the basis of the imputation that the dispute, on both sides, was an affair of sordid interest. We shall find it more just to say that the motive was empire on one side and self-government on the other. It was a question between liberty and authority, government by consent and government by force, the control of the subject by the state and the control of the state by the subject.

The issue had never been so definitely raised. In England it had long been settled. It had been settled that the legislature could, without breach of any ethical or constitutional law, without forfeiting its authority or exposing itself to just revolt, make laws injurious to the subject for the benefit of English religion or English trade. If that principle was abandoned in America it could not well be maintained in Ireland, and the green flag might fly on Dublin Castle.

This was no survival of the dark ages. Both the oppression of Ireland and the oppression of America was the work of the modern school, of men who executed one king and expelled another. It was the work of parliament, of the parliaments of Cromwell and of William III. And the parliament would not consent to renounce its own specific policy, its right of imposing taxes.

The crown, the clergy, the aristocracy were hostile to the Americans; but the real enemy was the House of Commons. The old European securities for good government were found insufficient protection against parliamentary oppression. The nation itself, acting by its representatives, had to be subjected to control. The political problem raised by the New World was more complicated than the simple issues dealt with hitherto in the Old. It had become necessary to turn back the current of the development of politics, to bind and limit and confine the state, which it was the pride of the moderns to exalt.

"The great mass went with the times, and held that the object of politics is power, and that the more dominion is extended, the more it must be retained by force. The reason why free trade is better than dominion was a secret obscurely buried in the breast of economists."

It was a new phase of political history. The American Revolution innovated upon the English Revolution, as the English Revolution innovated on the politics of Bacon or of Hobbes. There was no tyranny to be resented. The colonists were in many ways more completely their own masters than Englishmen at home. They were not roused by the sense of intolerable wrong. The point at issue was a very subtle and refined one, and it required a great deal of mismanagement to make the quarrel irreconcilable.

Successive English governments shifted their ground. They tried the Stamp Act; then the duty on tea and several other articles; then the tea duty alone; and at last something even less than the tea duty. In one thing they were consistent: they never abandoned the right of raising taxes. When the colonists, instigated by Patrick Henry, resisted the use of stamps, and Pitt rejoiced that they had resisted, parliament gave way on that particular measure, declaring that it retained the disputed right. Townshend carried a series of taxes on imports, which produced about three hundred pounds, and were dropped by Lord North.

Then an ingenious plan was devised, which would enforce the right of taxation, but which would not be felt by American pockets, and would, indeed, put money into them, in the shape of a bribe. East Indiamen were allowed to carry tea to American ports without paying toll in England. The Navigation Laws were suspended, that people in New England might drink cheap tea, without smuggling.

The duty in England was a shilling a pound. The duty in America was threepence a pound. The shilling was remitted, so that the colonies had only a duty of threepence to pay instead of a duty of fifteenpence. The tea drinker at Boston got his tea cheaper than the tea drinker at Bristol. The revenue made a sacrifice, it incurred a loss, in order to gratify the discontented colonials. If it was a grievance to pay more for a commodity, how could it be a grievance to pay less for the same commodity?

To gild the pill still further, it was proposed that the threepence should be levied at the British ports, so that the Americans should perceive nothing but the gift, nothing but the welcome fact that their tea was cheaper, and should be spared entirely the taste of the bitterness within. That would have upset the entire scheme. The government would not hear of it. America was to have cheap tea, but was to admit the tax. The sordid purpose was surrendered on our side, and only the constitutional motive was retained, in the belief that the sordid element alone prevailed in the colonies.

That threepence broke up the British empire. Twelve years of renewed contention, ever coming up in altered shape under different ministers, made it clear that the mind of the great parent state was made up, and that all variations of party were illusory. The Americans grew more and more obstinate as they purged the sordid question of interest with which they had begun.

At first they had consented to the restrictions imposed under the Navigation Laws. They now rejected them. One of the tea ships in Boston harbor was boarded at night, and the tea chests were flung into the Atlantic. That was the mild beginning of the greatest revolution that had ever broken out among civilized men.

The dispute had been reduced to its simplest expression, and had become a mere question of principle. The argument from the Charters, the argument from the Constitution, was discarded. The case was fought out on the ground of the law of nature, more properly speaking, of divine right. On that evening of December 16, 1773, it became, for the first time, the reigning force in history. By the rules of right, which had been obeyed till then, England had the better cause. By the principle which was then inaugurated, England was in the wrong, and the future belonged to the colonies.

The revolutionary spirit had been handed down from the 17th-century sects, through the colonial charters. As early as 1638 a Connecticut preacher said, "The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people, by God's own allowance. They who have the power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power, also, to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place unto which they call them."

In Rhode Island, where the Royal Charter was so liberal that it lasted until 1842, all power reverted annually to the people, and the authorities had to undergo reelection. Connecticut possessed so finished a system of self-government in the towns, that it served as a model for the federal Constitution. The Quakers of Pennsylvania managed their affairs without privilege, or intolerance, or slavery, or oppression. It was not to imitate England that they went into the desert. Several colonies were in various ways far ahead of the mother country; and the most advanced statesman of the Commonwealth, Vane, had his training in New England.

"The powers of the federal government were actually enumerated, and thus the states and the union were a check on each other. That principle of division was the most efficacious restraint on democracy that has been devised."

After the outrage on board the Dartmouth in Boston harbor the government resolved to coerce Massachusetts, and a continental Congress met to devise means for its protection. The king's troops were sent to destroy military stores that had been collected at Concord; and at Lexington, on the outward march, as well as all the way back, they were assailed by militia. The affair at Lexington, April 19, 1775, was the beginning of the War of Independence, which opened with the siege of Boston. Two months later the first action was fought at Breed's Hill, or Bunker Hill, which are low heights overlooking the town, and the colonials were repulsed with very little loss.

The war that followed, and lasted six years, is not illustrious in military annals, and interests us chiefly by the result. After the first battle the colonies declared themselves independent. Virginia, acting for herself only, led the way. Then the great revolutionist, who was the Virginian leader, Jefferson, drew up the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the remaining states. It was too rhetorical to be scientific; but it recited the series of ideas which the controversy had carried to the front.

Thirty thousand German soldiers, most of them from Hesse Cassel, were sent out, and were at first partially successful; for they were supported by the fleet, which the estuaries carried far inland. Where the European army had not that advantage things went badly. The Americans attacked Canada, expecting to be welcomed by the French inhabitants who had been so recently turned into British subjects. The attack failed dramatically by the death of General Montgomery, under the walls of Quebec, and the French colonists remained loyal.

But an expedition sent from Canada against New York, under Burgoyne, miscarried. Burgoyne had scarcely reached the Hudson when he was forced to surrender at Saratoga. The Congress of the States, which feebly directed operations, wished that the terms of surrender should not be observed, and that the 5000 English and German prisoners, instead of being sent home, should be detained until they could be exchanged. Washington and his officers made known that if this was done they would resign.

The British defeat at Saratoga is the event which determined the issue of the conflict. It put an end to the vacillation of France. The French government had to recover the position it had lost in the last war, and watched the course of events for evidence that American resistance was not about to collapse. At the end of 1777 the victory of Saratoga supplied the requisite proof. Volunteers had been allowed to go over, and much war material was furnished through the agency of a comic poet. Now a treaty of alliance was concluded, a small army was sent to sea, and in March 1778 England was informed that France was at war with her. France was followed by Spain, afterwards by Holland.

It was evident from the first that the combination was more than England could hope to meet. Lord North at once gave way. He offered to satisfy the American demands, and he asked that Chatham should take office. From the moment that his old enemy, France, appeared on the scene, Chatham was passionately warlike. The king agreed that he should be asked to join the ministry, but refused to see him. America declined the English overtures, in fulfillment of her treaty with France. The negotiation with Chatham became impossible. That was no misfortune, for he died a few weeks later, denouncing the government and the opposition.

Then came that phase of war during which the navy of France, under d'Orvilliers in the English Channel, under Suffren in the east, under d'Estaing and De Grasse in the west, proved itself equal to the navy of England. It was by the fleet, not by the land forces, that American independence was gained. But it was by the army officers that American ideas, sufficient to subvert every European state, were transplanted into France. When De Grasse drove the English fleet away from Virginian waters, Cornwallis surrendered the army of the south at Yorktown, as Burgoyne had surrendered with the northern army at Saratoga.

The Whigs came in and recognized the independence of the colonies, as North would have done four years earlier, when France intervened. Terms of peace with European powers were made more favorable by the final success of Rodney at Dominica and of Elliot at Gibraltar, but the warlike repute of England fell lower than at any time since the English Revolution.

The Americans proceeded to give themselves a Constitution which should hold them together more effectively than the congress which carried them through the war, and they held a convention for the purpose at Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The difficulty was to find terms of union between the three great states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts — and the smaller ones, which included New York.

The great states would not allow equal power to the others; the small ones would not allow themselves to be swamped by mere numbers. Therefore one chamber was given to population, and the other, the Senate, to the states on equal terms. Every citizen was made subject to the federal government as well as to that of his own state.

The powers of the states were limited. The powers of the federal government were actually enumerated, and thus the states and the union were a check on each other. That principle of division was the most efficacious restraint on democracy that has been devised; for the temper of the Constitutional Convention was as conservative as the Declaration of Independence was revolutionary.

The Federal Constitution did not deal with the question of religious liberty. The rules for the election of the president and for that of the vice president proved a failure. Slavery was deplored, was denounced, and was retained. The absence of a definition of state rights led to the most sanguinary civil war of modern times. Weighed in the scales of liberalism the instrument, as it stood, was a monstrous fraud. And yet, by the development of the principle of federalism, it has produced a community more powerful, more prosperous, more intelligent, and more free than any other which the world has seen.