Was American Independence Worth It?

I missed Bryan Caplan‘s 4th of July post asking “why American independence was worth fighting for” but he brings the issue up again today after getting some debate going with his readers.

His initial premise:

Most libertarians interpret the Revolutionary War as a libertarian crusade. But when you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it’s hard to get a decent answer.

In fact, with 20/20 hindsight, independence had two massive anti-libertarian consequences: It removed the last real check on American aggression against the Indians, and allowed American slavery to avoid earlier – and peaceful – abolition.

Today’s follow-up questions whether we’re really paying lower taxes as a result of the war. Megan McArdle chimes in wondering if the Brits would have abolished slavery so early were it not for American independence.

While those empirical questions are interesting, they rather miss the point. The chief goal of libertarianism is not low taxes or any specific public policy outcome but rather liberty. Winning the war gave us, as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed four score and seven years later, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As a consequence of the war, we gained our independence from the British crown, free to decide our own public policy. To ask whether it was “worth it” because things could have gone better is rather like asking whether growing up and leaving one’s parents’ home is “worth it” given that it means having to get a job, pay bills, and wash your own clothes. For those who enjoy liberty, it’s not even a close call.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    To ask whether it was “worth it” because things could have gone better is rather like asking whether growing up and leaving one’s parents’ home is “worth it” given that it means having to get a job, pay bills, and wash your own clothes. For those who enjoy liberty, it’s not even a close call.

    Which has a matter of logic, would seem to raise the question of where Caplan is on that question. That he even raises the question he does at all seems to me, a hint for the answer.

  2. Seamus says:

    we gained our independence from the British crown

    And maintained our dependence on a state capital and lost our independence from Washington, DC. If the people of the late 18th century were living in their parents house, then so are we. Patriotic stories
    are emotional and bear little analysis.

  3. NoZe says:

    Had the Revolutionary War not been fought, the U.S. likely would have followed a similar course to that of Canada, Australia and New Zealand – we would have remained colonies longer but would have acquired independence eventually without the need for a revolution. The U.S. would likely have retained closer formal ties to the mother country – commonwealth status, the monarch as head of state, etc.

    Does that mean we’d have less liberty? I don’t think so. We generally think of the Canadians and Australians as being democratic and liberty-loving, albeit somewhat less individualistic than ourselves!

    What confuses me is how removing “the last real check on American aggression against the Indians” is anti-libertarian? I can see how this might be the case if one were an Indian – most libertarians would agree that protecting the lives and property rights of individuals is a legitimate end of government.

    However, if one were a colonist who saw Indians as less than human, threatening, and an obstacle to the acquisition of prime agricultural lands, then it seems to me that throwing off the shackles of a distant government that was preventing you from harassing the Indians would be quite liberating!

  4. Wayne says:

    Picking a few hand pick policy and state we would be better off as a whole if they would have been enacted earlier is bogus.
    First there was civil war with one of many of the key issue for it being slavery. If the brits were in charge they may have pacify the South therefore prolonging slavery.

    The more likely outcome would be that the U.S. wouldn’t have become as great as it has. The Louisiana Purchase from France wouldn’t have occured since France and England were fighting at the time and was one of the reasons we bought it so cheap.

    The policy of U.S. that help it thrive and which we lost sight of is that it was founded on the rights of the individual instead of a particular group. An individual had a right to own property regardless of what status he was born into, to vote, and most importantly control his own future. If they were willing to take chance then they were able to reap the rewards. There are books written about these things.

    The form of government was unique and necessary for the boom of U.S. This includes the policy of letting the local governments have the majority of the control and a weak central government. No longer true which I believe hurts today America. Again many books have been written on this.

    Most importantly the policies that allowed the America spirit to flourish would not have happen if we still lived at home with mom.

    I like Australia and even Canada but we kick their ass in about every catergorie hands down. Also they are way to socialist for my liking.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Had the Revolutionary War not been fought, the U.S. likely would have followed a similar course to that of Canada, Australia and New Zealand – we would have remained colonies longer but would have acquired independence eventually without the need for a revolution.

    Probably so, although the difference between gaining freedom in 1781 vice 1867 and 1901 is not inconsequential.

  6. Billy says:

    The chief goal of libertarianism is not low taxes or any specific public policy outcome but rather liberty.

    Quite right. I haven’t read Caplan’s post, but it seems from the quotes above that he fundamentally understands the very concept of libertarianism.

    1
  7. spencer says:

    How about a completely different area of consideration.

    If there had not been an American Revolution would there have been a French Revolution?

  8. Rick DeMent says:

    For those who enjoy liberty, it’s not even a close call.

    Sure but it seems that to satisfy the cause of “Liberty” all it would have taken is representation in parliament. That the Brits were rather pig headed as far as that notion went was the only real grievance the colonials had. After all it was both right and proper that the colonials be taxed for the maintenance of troops to fight off the French and Indians. Had that not happed then we would all be speaking French.

    The idea that the colonials were somehow “enslaved” to the crown is kind of stupid. The whole romantic notion of “liberty” was overly romanticized way of saying, we want a vote in parliament. Had the crown capitulated early in the processes in a meaningful way there would have been no grievance and no revolution.

  9. James Joyner says:

    The idea that the colonials were somehow “enslaved” to the crown is kind of stupid. The whole romantic notion of “liberty” was overly romanticized way of saying, we want a vote in parliament. Had the crown capitulated early in the processes in a meaningful way there would have been no grievance and no revolution.

    Agreed. See my July 4, 2006 fisking of the Declaration.

  10. Wayne says:

    Could the Brits capitulated and prevented the American Revolution? Maybe. I have a feeling that there were more underlying feelings then just having a vote in parliament. I believe that there is much more to liberty then having a vote.

    Way back when I work in a prison and for that matter some bar fights I notice a few things. One is sometimes people will fight or revolt regardless of what anyone does. They will use any little excuse to justify doing so. The American Revolution may have fallen in that category.

    Regardless, the American Revolution was probably a very good thing for the U.S. Otherwise it’s growth would have been severely stunted.

    They would have relied to heavily on Britain military for defense. They would not have felt as much that their destiny was in their hands. They would have been constraints by British laws, wars and restraints. They would not have the government that came about as a result of the revolution. George Washington would never have been President and his great ideals and example probably would never been heard so widely. The list goes on and on. Many came to the U.S. to escape British rule.

  11. NoZe says:

    >Probably so, although the difference between >gaining freedom in 1781 vice 1867 and 1901 is >not inconsequential.

    How is it consequential?

    >I have a feeling that there were more underlying >feelings then just having a vote in parliament.

    Following the end of the French-Indian War in 1763, most colonists were fiercely proud to be members of the British Empire, the largest, most powerful, most prosperous on earth. The British mismanaged their relations with the colonies following the war…had they handled things differently, I don’t think it was inevitable that the Revolution would have happened. People don’t rebel when they’re happy with the way things are going!

  12. James Joyner says:

    How is it consequential?

    Well, it means being free 86 and 120 years earlier, respectively. Which is to say, the entire lifespans of several generations of Americans.

    The British mismanaged their relations with the colonies following the war…had they handled things differently, I don’t think it was inevitable that the Revolution would have happened. People don’t rebel when they’re happy with the way things are going!

    True enough. But the advantage of sovereignty is that you get to make those decisions for yourself, controlling your own destiny.

  13. NoZe says:

    >Well, it means being free 86 and 120 years >earlier, respectively. Which is to say, the >entire lifespans of several generations of >Americans.

    My point though is that they wouldn’t have been unfree, any more than the Canadians and the Australians were “unfree” prior to their independence. Just as the American colonies did prior to the Revolution, they had considerable freedom of action in managing their own domestic affairs!

    >True enough. But the advantage of sovereignty is >that you get to make those decisions for >yourself, controlling your own destiny.

    I agree, and, again, I’m glad that we’re independent!

    I’m not arguing that that’s the same as full independence – I’m glad that the U.S. is a sovereign nation! – but at the same time we have to realize that the Canadians and Australians weren’t living under some sort of despotic tyranny either!

  14. James Joyner says:

    the Canadians and Australians weren’t living under some sort of despotic tyranny either!

    I don’t know my Canadian or Aussie history well enough to debate that. Certainly, even at the height of George III’s indignities, it wasn’t like living under Saddam Hussein in the Colonies.

    Geographical isolation meant that a certain amount of freedom of action was inevitable. On the other hand, our affairs were governed by the whims of an oversees ruler and we had no say over the things that commanded royal attention.

  15. NoZe says:

    I don’t know as much Canadian or Australian history as I should either, but my sense is that the British learned something from their experiences with our Revolution and were more sensitive in their relations with our Ozzie and Canuck brethren! By allowing them considerable autonomy and self-government, there was no need for them to rebel and their evolution toward independence was relatively peaceful and amicable!

  16. Wayne says:

    Many Americans today are proud of our British ancestry.

    Many Americans before the Revolution felt disconnect with their British rulers. A vote in parliament probably would have landed on deaf ears. The fierce U.S. independent attitude would most like have resulted in a revolt sooner or later. Remember the British didn’t create colonies out of shear kindness. They profited from them.

    How is it consequential?
    How about the Louisiana Purchase, War 1812, Spain ceding Florida, Texas independence and joining the Union, Oregon Treaty with Canada, Mexican war that resulted in California and other Southwest territories, Gold rush, Civil war, Homestead act, acquisitions of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and much more.

    Some were positive and some were negative but both required to build this great nation we have today. Many of the land acquisition most likely wouldn’t have happen under British rule. Britain considered many of their other colonies as a higher priority.

  17. NoZe says:

    >The fierce U.S. independent attitude would most >like have resulted in a revolt sooner or later.

    That’s at odds with the facts, Wayne. There was no major groundswell of support for independence until the 1770s…even during the Revolution, a good 2/3’s of the population supported the British and another 1/3 didn’t give a rip either way.

    Yes, the situation was profitable for London…as it was for the colonists themselves.

    The pride most people felt was in the British system…the history of limited government, the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, parliamentary government, constitutional monarchy, the history of colonial self-government. It was the sense that the government in London was violating the rights of the colonies as Englishmen that started all the trouble! The colonists were proud not to be French or Spanish!

    >How about the Louisiana Purchase…

    Why wouldn’t those have happened without independence? Had the Revolutionary War never happened, the British would have been in a very strong position in North America – they would have controlled Canada and what in fact became the colonies.

    The French had been defeated in the French-Indian War, had given up their claims in North America, and would soon be in the throes of revolution themselves (would it have happened without the U.S. Revolution? Good question…). Without the War of 1812, the British would have been able to devote their full attention to Napoleon, who they still managed to defeat while simultaneously fighting the Americans to a stalemate.

    The Spanish were already a declining empire in the 1770s…no reason to think that they would have posed any more of a threat to the British than they did to the Americans.

    Even with the American Revolution, within a century the British would control 1/4 of the earth’s surface. Had they not lost the American colonies, who knows how powerful they might have been?

  18. just me says:

    Yep I think the real difference “no revolution” makes is what would the North American Continent look like today, without the revolution-because that revolution was the catalyst for other things-much of it how the United States gained the various territories and lands to be the size that it is.

    In the end it is possible the Brits may have won what was purchased from France in a war, and we would have ended up with that land, but not so sure about Texas, California, and the four corners area.

  19. Richard Gardner says:

    First off, this sounds like a great Harry Turtledove book. What if…..

    As an American, I still do not understand the massive UK shift from the loathsome (in our view) King George that controlled the Empire personally, to the modern Queen Elizabeth that can only dissolve Parliament, and get her family into Tabloids. We are talking massive changes in the ownership of the state, and I don’t understand how it happened since 1800.

    I’m not against a noblese oblige monarchy, so long as they fulfill the responsibility. I’d love to see Queen Elizabeth suddenly say “I regret to say but your service to the Crown is no longer required” to a Prime Minister (Charles would NEVER get away with it).

    But I’m an American, with little understanding of the British system. (Cough, reverse this too)

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    Yes, but I fear we have forgotten why and what is our worth to it.

    Let us take a look at what the Father of this country had hoped for us.

    I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over witch you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field,and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humanity and pacific temper of mind, witch were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.
    George Washington, circular letter of farewell to the Army, June 8,1783

    A letter to his troops, but a true part of history that I think we can all learn something about why it was, is, and can still be attained to make it worth it again.

  21. floyd says:

    “”For those who enjoy liberty, it’s not even a close call.””
    ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

    Unfortunately, this number is shrinking daily in America!

  22. Bleebus says:

    I think that all of you have fundamentally misunderstood Bryan Caplan’s statement. You should read it again (for the first time for most of you) and give it another go.

    Also, labelling someone “pro-American” or “anti-American” is a waste of digital space that doesn’t advance your argument.

  23. G.A.Phillips says:

    Bleebus
    ****Also, labelling someone “pro-American” or “anti-American” is a waste of digital space that doesn’t advance your argument.****

    It was a Christian revolution for the good of mankind, not a libertarian crusade.

    so this is not a wast of space if you acutely know something about history, but I will say that it used by far to many for their own Anti-American agenda.