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Was the American Revolution Secessionist?

Battle of Yorktown re-enactors.Visions of America / Shutterstock.com

A few people may be a little unclear about the argument of my last post on secession as a principle of liberty (or not, as I argue). Its inspiration was the fact that it seemed curious for Americans to long for Scottish secession when the Scots themselves had voted against it. Whatever was being expressed was not sympathy for the Scottish people, so what was it? The answer was a general case for secession as an inherently good thing, in radical libertarian theory, because it leads to smaller states, and maybe no states. I pointed out various problems with this notion, which seems to have greater emotional force than reasoning behind it.

Obviously there are cases in which secession or political breakup—we’ll get to the difference in a minute—can be good things. In the case of Czechoslovakia, division came peacefully and fulfilled a democratic-nationalistic wish on the part of the constituent peoples to govern their own affairs separately. The relationship between such democratic-nationalistic motives and the individual liberty that is dear to U.S. libertarians is complex, but it looks as if there are cases where the former doesn’t harm the latter and may even advance it. That does not mean the two things are always compatible, however, and nationalism—including of the Scottish variety—very often involves policies abhorrent to the advocates of free markets.

Ironically or not, criticizing a general enthusiasm for secessionism elicits a certain amount of patriotic ire from some individualists who play the American Revolution as their trump card. Is the argument that secessionism is generally good because the American Revolution was good, or is it that the American Revolution was good because secessionism generally is? There’s a difference here between constitutionalist libertarians, who take the former position, and radical libertarians, who take the latter. But in any case, both are wrong: questions of political union or breakup depend upon the particulars. The American Revolution didn’t derive its legitimacy from radical libertarian arguments about anti-statist secession, and the revolution doesn’t tell us anything about the merits of other breakaway movements.

The American Revolution itself is a very complicated thing and doesn’t in all senses belong in the category of secession. The Declaration of Independence, for example, decribes the break from Britain in terms of a revolution in which an already separate people deposes its monarch and severs its ties with his government in another country. This is framed rather as if the relationship between the American colonies and Britain were akin to the relationship between Scotland and England before the Act of Union. Before that, Scotland and England had a single monarch but separate parliaments and governments—they were, constitutionally speaking, separate countries with a joint head of state. The American colonies had sound grounds for considering themselves a parallel example: they too had their own legislatures, even though they shared a king with the United Kingdom.

Note that had Scottish secession succeeded, it would only have undone the Act of Union while retaining the Queen as head of state—in other words, it would have put Scotland after secession in much the same constitutional position as the American colonies were in before the War of Independence, which is another reason to think “secession” is not the right word for what the colonists were doing. They were already outside of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland and by their own lights were simply affiliated with it through a shared king. This, by the way, is why the Declaration of Independence is directed against the Crown rather than Parliament, even though by 1776 the latter made most policy decisions.

What the colonists had been demanding before they turned revolutionary was also something rather like what the Scottish got out of the Act of Union: representation in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The colonists were aggrieved because the king was allowing Parliament, in which Americans were not represented, to set policy for the colonies, over the objections of the colonists’ own legislatures. Self-government was very much the crux of the Americans’ concerns, and it applied not only to legislatures and governors (who were often royal appointments) but also to church governance: even American Anglicans were quite Protestant in character, and they feared that the precedent of the king allowing a Catholic bishop certain authority in Quebec—which Britain had taken in the French and Indian War—would ultimately translate into the king sending Church of England bishops to America to take control of American church governance.

But there was a foreign-policy angle to the revolution as well, one that should disquiet patriotic libertarians who think of America as a freedom-loving republic fighting to separate itself from an evil empire. For the American colonists, Britain was not imperial enough, at least where the Indians were concerned. Britain had provided for the colonists’ security against the French and Indians, and the taxes Britain wanted to impose to help pay for that war were one of things to which the Americans objected. But it wasn’t just the money: Americans were being taxed for an ongoing foreign policy that failed to do what many colonists dearly wanted to do—namely, seize more western land.

This is why the Declaration’s litany of grievances against the king ends with the claim that he “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The British did not want Americans taking it upon themselves to settle the west, and they were not much inclined to extend military protection to settlers whose disregard for the frontier provoked Indian attacks. The Declaration is naturally couched in defensive terms, but what many colonists wanted wasn’t defense but a foreign policy that would enable private land-grabs and colonization efforts. It’s no accident that the one really big piece of legislation the U.S. managed to pass under the Articles of Confederation was the Northwest Ordinance. Colonizing the west was an imperative of building the American nation.

Mercenary and strategic motives are hard to separate: the “vacuum” of Indian territory would have been filled by an organized state or states sooner or later—if not by the U.S. then by a European colonial power or by Americans like Aaron Burr (or Sam Houston) carving out republics of their own, or by the Indians themselves forming a lasting, state-like confederation. Any of these alternatives would have had security implications for the Americans whether they were independent or part of the British Empire. Needless to say, the Americans had more freedom to set their own policies for conquest and defense alike if they were out from under the thumb of the king and his Parliament.  The independent U.S. itself tried to regulate expansion into Indian territory—one of many respects in which the newly established federal government picked up where the British had left off—and tensions between a restraining central government and eager-to-colonize states and individuals continued. But ultimately an American central government was going to be more sympathetic to expansion than London was.

The security logic of the American Revolution is hard to argue with, and Americans certainly considered what they were doing to be extending freedom—their own, at least. But a libertarian today who wants to take a universal view of things has to see all this as something murkier than a victory for self-governing good against imperial evil. Had America remained British, theslavery trade might well have been abolished as soon and as peacefully as it was by the rest of the British Empire—the very fact that colonial slave-holders did not have formal representation in Parliament (the thing that Americans were clamoring for) was what allowed abolition to take place. Three wars might have been averted: the War of Independence; the unsuccessful U.S. war of conquest that followed in 1812; and the Civil War that arose from as a result of a Constitution that divided sovereignty and left the question of slavery open. On the other hand, America would have had some involvement in the Napoleonic Wars—assuming there had been a French Revolution and a Napoleon in the first place without the American Revolution.

Such counterfactuals are troubling, and they can hardly be waved away with talk about American freedoms, such as free speech, that are actually British in origin, if more strongly established here. What would have been lost is not individual liberty but a model of republicanism that is so tightly entwined with the American psyche that in a real sense we would not exist as a people without it. But for that reason—the fact that this deeply, originally Protestant commitment to self-government has defined who we are since long before the revolution—independence was perhaps inevitable and would always have set the world on an unpredictable course.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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