Monday, July 4, 2011

Thoughts on the American Revolution

While listening to a recent podcast, someone asked "Why is it that the American revolution is the only one that didn't end in a bloodbath?".  From the French Reign of Terror, to the killing fields of Cambodia, to the mountains of the former Yugoslavia, almost all revolutionary political changes have included mass killings.  Usually these incidents include not only members of the former ruling class, but also common people who don't fit into the mold that the new regime was using to cast their new society.

So what was different about the 13 original states?  Not to say that there wasn't bloodshed, because there certainly was a bit of that after the shooting war ended.  But those colonists who remained loyal to Great Britain were for the most part allowed to leave with their lives, if not the bulk of their property.  Contrast what happened in 1783 in North America with what happened in France in 1789.  While there was some violence and what we would probably call ethnic cleansing over here, in Paris, they started lining people up for a close mechanical shave.

When the South and Central American colonies overthrew their Spanish masters, people were hung and shot in successive waves.  Repeat that in Russia, post-WWI Germany, and post-colonial India, Africa, and Southeast Asia.  Millions died in China after the Communist takeover in 1947.  There was even violence in the 'peaceful' dissolution of Communism in Eastern Europe in the early 1990's, culminating in the Balkan Wars.

The only exceptions to this rule I can think of off the top of my head was the Velvet Divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and possibly the movement of some members of the British Empire to self-rule, such as Canada and Australia.

So what happened?  Why are we so different?

Some posit that the American colonists had been pretty much self-guided for such a long time that when we decided to finally make it official we didn't see the need to purge our ranks.  Others suggest that in the beginning, if you didn't like your neighbors in North America, both of you had ample opportunity to just up and move.  To paraphrase Heinlein, nothing makes good neighbor relations like ample elbow room.

I see the truth in these theories, and they probably had a lot to do with it, but there's something more.  The leaders of our revolution had several hundred years of British political and social development to rest upon, aided by physical separation from the corruption of these ideals, to support them.  They could read Locke and other members of the Enlightenment, but their studies were not muddied by the sausage factory of a working parliamentary system. 

They also had the luxury, at least until the last couple of decades before 1776, of being able to have their cake and eat it too.  They could stand on their rights as Englishmen, but due to being a long sea voyage away from London, they didn't have too many of the responsibilities a subject owes to his sovereign.  When Parliament and King George III fought a war for French North America and expected the American colonies to chip in through taxes, the colonists began to scream about violations of their rights.  I've always wondered what would have happened if, when the Americans squawked about "taxation without representation", King George had raised several prominent Americans to the House of Lords and given them a vote.   Would there have been an American revolution if Washington, who was a British hero after the French and Indians War, had become First Earl of Virginia?  What if Franklin, or more likely his son, became the Duke of the Mid-Atlantic states?  Add in a few elected members of the House of Commons from Boston, Charlestown, and New York, and the cassus belli for the revolution starts to evaporate.

But to get back to the question at hand, why didn't the streets of Boston, New York, and Charlestown run red with the blood of Tories in 1783?  Why were those who opposed Washington politically not taken out to the woods and shot?  My guess is that the leaders of the revolution truly believed that their calling was to bring the theoretical politics of Locke and his contemporiaries to fruition, and were able to agree on it well enough to forestall bloodshed.  Their solution was flawed, and we spend much time, treasure, and occasionally blood improving on it.  But with a little luck and a determination to do the right thing and go home, they got it right enough that lining people up for the gallows or the guillotine was unnecessary.

For over two centuries we've been following their example and with only one exception, we've been able to keep this thing going without watering the fields with blood.  We argue, scream, belittle, and backbite day in and day out, but political victors have never put the losers on a train to nowhere.

Today we commemorate the day our colonial ancestors made it official. There was a long war ahead, followed by debates and arguments over what the revolution would bring to the new country, but in one form or another, our republic has stood for 235 years.  Here's hoping it stands for at least another 235.


Old NFO said...

Good post DB- I think another reason is that 'most' of the people who came here to start with were not enamored with British rule and were pretty independently minded even before the split. Another thing is that there was 'room' for everyone...

Spikessib said...

The separation of Norway and Sweden in 1905 was peaceful and entailed no purges.

Just thought you might be interested, since you have Norwegian antecedents.

Nancy R. said...

Also, if you took a poll, about 1/3of the population was for independence, 1/3 were loyal to the King, and 1/3 didn't give a rat's patootie. There weren't overwhelming numbers on any one side.

Anonymous said...

You may want to consider also that the American revolution was based on individual rights. The Declaration of independence, the Constitution and bill of rights all referred to the rights granted by our creator to individuals.
The revolutions occuring in the countries you mentioned were a hodgepodge mix of collective rights (AN Oxymoron) and statist social engineering and control of the masses by a new elite.

Paul in Texas

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