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Thoughts on Independence Day

In the Prologue of their book, The Declaration of Independents, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch offer a very common take on the Declaration of Independence:

When was the last time you read the Declaration of Independence? Go ahead and call it up; give it a quick scan—we’ll wait. Focus less on the detailed bill of particulars against King George (“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant”!), disregard completely the bit about “the merciless Indian savages,” and concentrate instead on the two majestic, throat-clearing paragraphs at the top. (p. ix).

Actually, you owe it to yourself this Independence Day to do the reverse of what Gillespie and Welch suggest. Just scan the “the two majestic, throat-clearing paragraphs at the top,” and focus this year, if you haven’t already, on the bill of particulars. If you’re an American, you’ve probably been reciting the “majestic paragraphs” since you were in first grade. You already know what they say, so there’s no point in belaboring them yet again.

In fact, taken literally, much of what they say is, by Objectivist standards at least, straightforwardly false. It may be true, but it isn’t a self-evident truth, that all men (or all humans) are morally equal, and it’s false that they were created that way. Nor are they endowed by a Creator with inalienable (or “unalienable”) rights. As for governments deriving their powers from the consent of the governed, the claim raises more questions than it answers. Beyond that, it’s very far from clear “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Some experience shows the reverse. In fact, that’s the very question worth asking in the case at hand. Was the Revolutionary War premature? Could it have been averted? Were its evils sufferable, at least in the interests of avoiding war?

Washington's Crossing, near Lambertville NJ

Washington’s Crossing, near Lambertville NJ

To understand the Declaration of Independence, you have to get past the throat-clearing stage and ask whether its bill of particulars really adds up to a case for war. If the bill of particulars is really as banal, boring, or pedestrian as Gillespie and Welch imply, surely the question should arise: why would anyone bother to fight for such a thing? Consider the horrific miseries of the Revolutionary Army during the Revolutionary War—think “Jockey Hollow” or “Valley Forge” (and “Mount Misery”). Were they really worth enduring for independence from the British Crown? The answer isn’t obvious. In making it seem obvious to schoolchildren (and high school students), we glorify a war that might have been avoided, and thereby glorify the idea that we need not think about how to avoid war when we can.

Personally, you couldn’t have paid me any amount of money to fight in the Revolutionary War. (Never mind that for most of the war, the Revolutionary Army was broke.) Just look at the bill of particulars. Yes, it indicates that King George was a tyrant. Yes, tyranny is bad. But what is it about this list that would induce anyone to pick up a gun, join an army, freeze, starve, and risk death or maiming? How does it add up to a call to start a war?

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness of his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and 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.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

What’s semi-amusing is that few of us today care about half of the things on the list. Most of the complaints have to do with deprivations of the right of self-governance—rights few of us bother to exercise. Very few have much to do with direct violations of life, liberty, or property. And though the issue is certainly debatable, each of the grievances about direct rights violations sounds, to my ears at least, distorted or exaggerated.   

The really interesting question about the American Revolution is when, if ever, it became inevitable—and why. To avoid a regress, we have to fix a baseline somewhere, so let’s arbitrarily fix it at 1763, the end of the Seven Years’ (or French and Indian) War. Americans benefited from British protection in that war, and there was no anti-war movement to suggest that they didn’t want such protection. Was it so unreasonable, then, that Americans pay the taxes involved in the Revenue Act and Stamp Act?

Perhaps it was wrong of the Crown to forbid westward expansion to the Americans. But then, wasn’t American treatment of “the Indian Savages” equally wrong, and something requiring a remedy, or at least a bit of restraint? One might grant the inconveniences of the Crown’s garrisoning troops on American soil, as well as the degrading quality of the Quartering Act. But couldn’t one see the logistical reasons for it, as well? If you want military protection, you need troops; if you have troops, they need to be quartered; if the land on which they’re to be quartered is relatively undeveloped, you have to use what’s available to house them. And private property was what was available–as the Revolutionary Army itself discovered. Didn’t the Revolutionary Army end up plundering a fair bit from the people in its own way? How else would it have made its escape from Manhattan during its retreat after the Battle of Long Island?

Fort Mercer Monument (Gloucester County, NJ)

Fort Mercer Monument (Gloucester County, NJ)

The Declaratory Act certainly sounds imperialistic. But haven’t we by now come to interpret our Constitution in ways analogous to it? Think of contemporary interpretations of the General Welfare or Commerce Clauses. Britain claimed to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever. But doesn’t every state do the same in the territory it claims as its own? The Townshend Acts may well have been wrong, but some hairsplitting and lawyerly argumentation was required to demonstrate that fact. Either you remember the details of the arguments or you don’t. If you do, do you really think those distinctions were worth fighting for? If you don’t, can it be worth fighting for something you can’t manage to keep in your head?

Maybe the Boston Massacre was the turning point? Hard to believe. As many people died in the Boston Massacre as died in the Boston Marathon bombings (5). No one thinks the latter event was world-historical, so why think the Boston Massacre was?  The British soldiers accused of the massacre were in any case acquitted of murder, and defended by John Adams. The Boston Tea Party was a response to a duty on tea; the Coercive Acts were a response to the Tea Party. Had the destroyed tea been paid for, the Coercive Acts might have been lifted–coercive, to be sure, but escapable. The Suffolk Resolves may well have been essentially correct, but they need not have included a call to arms or the suggestion of creating a rival to the Crown’s monopoly on force. Even up to 1774 and 1775, Pitt, Burke, and Franklin were talking peace, and looking for a means of reconciliation. The reconciliation might have been accepted, and war avoided. The Quebec Act of 1774 was problematic, to put it mildly, but might have been endured. Even after the first shot was fired—itself not an inevitability—there was time to patch things up. John Dickinson’s Olive Branch Petition of 1775 was a bit abject and shabby, but still preferable to war. By early 1776, one historian writes, “Reconciliation on any acceptable basis was no longer possible…” (my emphasis). But that presupposes what needs argument—that war was more acceptable than the terms offered by the Crown.

Even as late as December 1776, New Jerseyans were reluctant to fight for the Revolution. “The conduct of the Jerseys has been most infamous,” Washington wrote his brother Augustine. “Instead of turning out to defend their country, and affording aid to our army, they are making their submissions as fast as they can. If they had given us any support, we might have made a stand at Hackensack and after that at Brunswick, but the few militia that were in arms disbanded themselves…” I always feel accused when I read that, because I know, with certainty, that I’d have been among the Jerseyans “making their submissions as fast as they can”—not because I like to submit to tyrannical authority, but because I prefer submission to the miseries of a long war.

Nassau Hall (Princeton NJ), the American capital, July-October 1783

Nassau Hall (Princeton NJ), the American capital, July-October 1783

You can’t live in New Jersey and miss the monuments, grand and inconspicuous, of the Revolutionary War. The town I grew up in had a “Tory Corner,” where the Revolutionary-era Tories were tarred and feathered (or so local legend has it). I have memories, from early childhood, of visits to Jockey Hollow, Washington’s Headquarters, and Fort Nonsense in Morristown—and of wondering why (the city of) Fort Lee was called “Fort Lee.” For ten years I lived in Princeton—home to Nassau Hall, the Princeton Battlefield, and Rockingham. Not far from there, just south of Lambertville, was Washington’s Crossing—where Washington crossed the Delaware in advance of the Battle of Trenton (and where, reflecting on the scene year after year on Christmas Eve over a few slices of local pizza, I’ve often wondered how I’d have escaped the advance on Trenton, gone AWOL, and found my way home). Molly Pitcher did her thing at the Battle of Monmouth (in Monmouth), Sandy Hook was a British naval base during the Revolution, Fort Mercer no longer stands, but its relics are collected in Red Bank, and Thomas Paine (author of Common Sense, which brought us the war) lived in Bordentown. The ghosts of the Revolution still stalk this state.

The truth is that I’ve never made my peace with the war that made my country. So I have mixed feelings about Independence Day. Carrie-Ann and I usually spend the day in Morristown, sweating out the humidity of a Jersey July in the soldier’s huts at Jockey Hollow, wondering about their sanity, and reflecting on our comparative wimpiness. I feel admiration for what they did, but can never shake the feeling that the worst that might have happened had they not fought was that we’d have ended up living in some equivalent of Canada. Would that really have been so bad? Something to think about underneath the fireworks tonight.

 Irfan

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10 Comments

  1. Jonathan says:

    Is this meant as a satire of those with no sense of life, or is this an attempt at stoking the fire within those of us who DO have a sense of life? In the latter it succeeds.

    – “Yes, it indicates that King George was a tyrant. Yes, tyranny is bad. But what is it about this list that would induce anyone to pick up a gun, join an army, freeze, starve, and risk death or maiming? How does it add up to a call to start a war?”

    It “adds up” for the very reason you mentioned in the first sentence of your statement quoted above; King George was a tyrant. The list, regardless of how benign its accusations appear to you, cannot be taken out of the context that they are the actions of a tyrant.

    – “…not because I like to submit to tyrannical authority, but because I prefer submission to the miseries of a long war.”

    In essence, you prefer to become a pawn to an oppressor, to appease as a servant than to behave in accordance with any virtue that requires you to pay a price to achieve or obtain a value. This is in stark contrast to any claim of individual rights, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and a life in which one is free to act in accordance with one’s rational self-interest. How could it possibly be in your self-interest to be dependent on a tyrannical ruler?

    If further emboldening the sense of life in your readers was your intent then well done, Sir. If, however, this is your true assessment then I am not at all surprised that you question the virtue of independence because you have no sense of life.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Living under tyranny isn’t a sufficient condition for deciding to go to war. The issue turns on whether war is worse than tyranny, and often it is–by the standard of life. It can be more in your interest to live under tyranny than fight it: tyranny, though bad, is not necessarily as bad as death by starvation, incurable illness, and maiming, which is what war (especially in 1776) was very likely to bring a front-line soldier. A sense of life isn’t a good guide to deciding whether or not to fight, even in a street fight, much less a war.

    I wasn’t questioning the virtue of independence, by the way. I was questioning whether the bill of particulars of the Declaration of Independence adds up to a case for war as long as war was avoidable–a very different thing.

    As for sense of life, I think I have a rather distinctive sense of life, actually. I’m not a pacifist, but I’ve seen enough of death to hate war. So I’m a big fan of devising excuses for getting out of any that come by–or that went. The last decade or so of war has convinced me that I ought to hone and exercise that excuse-making skill better than I previously have. And to be a little more aggressive about challenging people like you to come up with good reasons for giving and taking life.

    Irfan

  3. Jonathan says:

    I appreciate your honest response, and I am glad you are one to question reasons for going to war as I believe not enough people are. I am in my sixteenth year in the Navy (active duty), and I too hate war. Our country has been in multiple wars that we had no business entering into.

    A life without freedom, a life in which I must depend on the mercy of “his majesty” who claims self empowerment to, by his “royal sign”, create, execute and enforce any law as he sees fit is not a life I would submit to nor would I accept it as a life for those that I love. To liberate myself and my loved ones from tyrannical rule is worth the price of engaging in war when the goal is to create a society in which recognition and protection of individual rights are the foundation of its government. Therefore, I would have taken up arms and fought for this justice knowing what the costs might be.

    I’m no historian, and I’ve got a lot of learning to do before I can begin to comment on the specifics of the revolutionary war. But I can imagine that I lived in that time. I had come to America to stake my claim and pursue my own happiness only to find out that someone else – another man with no more right to pursue his happiness than I – demand I submit to his majesty. Based on what? …Royal blood? What was mine is now his. Sure, it might start with mild seemingly benign demands, but the more I submit, and the longer this is allowed to go on the worse it gets and the easier it is for him to impose his will on me and my family, those whom I value. Things would only get increasingly worse from this point. That would be a nightmare to me!

    As far as I’m concerned, the fact that the colonies were under tyrannical rule leaves no room for doubt; no question of whether or not to replace it with a proper government rooted in individual rights. The case made in the Declaration of Independence proves that the tyrant wasn’t going to simply back off and allow a proper government to form in his absence. Therefore war was the proper course of action.

    That is my position.

    I hope you are eventually able to draw the same conclusion. Nevertheless, thank you for stoking my fire, and happy Independence!

  4. irfankhawaja says:

    I’m glad to be having this discussion, too. But we need to be clear what we’re disagreeing about. I’m not disagreeing that a life without freedom, or of dependence on someone’s majesty, is evil. The question is: when is it worth risking your life to liberate yourself from it by arms? The answer has to deal with at least four things: 1) how bad is the tyranny? 2) what is the probability of success in overturning it by arms? 3) what are the alternatives to overturning it by arms (and how likely is success by that route)? 4) given your individual circumstances, what will happen to you the fighter if your side should win? These are four complex questions. No one should ever rush into war without figuring out the answers to all four.

    Consider question (1). Yes, tyranny is bad. No one should ever choose to live under one. But tyrannies differ by the degree to which they deprive you of liberty. There was a huge difference between say, George III and Stalin. Both were tyrants, but in America, one could escape the edicts of George III. Not so Stalin. That matters. You don’t fight every tyrant just because he is one.

    Question (2). It would obviously make no sense to join a suicidal cause even if it was a cause against tyranny. You might as well just commit suicide. But what’s true of suicide is true of lost causes or causes with a low probability of success. In 1776, the people of New Jersey were right to wonder whether it made any sense to join George Washington. George III may have been a tyrant, but if it’s bad to live under one, think how much worse it is to commit suicide because of one.

    Question (3). You say that you can’t comment on the specifics of the Revolutionary War, but then you insist that things would only have gotten worse if we hadn’t fought the war. That isn’t consistent. The Americans had allies in the British Parliament and government (e.g., Burke). George III was in ill health for much of his later monarchy. There were in-house squabbles over the regency. It was possible that the Americans could have exploited those political weaknesses to their own advantage, short of war. Again, look at Canada. Same king, but they had no war, and aren’t a tyranny.

    Question (4). I said I wouldn’t join the Continental Army, but I didn’t quite say I’d never fight. What I think I would have done, by 1777, is what a lot of continentals did. They became guerillas. They didn’t join the army, but didn’t just sit there and take it, either. They fought, then melted into the civilian population. They fought again, then melted, etc. From a professional military perspective, it’s a chickenshit thing to do. But it’s a good way to win a war, and a good way to stay alive to benefit from the victory. By 1777, the Hessians had made life hell for Americans, so you’d probably have to fight them in defense of home and hearth. But that’s not quite the same as the bill of particulars in the Declaration.

    So that’s my position. But it’s 9 pm, and I hear fireworks. Have a good Fourth. I’m much obliged to you for your service in the Navy. Our country has indeed been in too many wars it has had no business being in, and let’s hope it stops doing so sometime soon.

    Irfan

  5. jccarmichael says:

    You do make some rational arguments against war as a solution. However, I don’t want to carry on with this indefinitely. I will say this: Whether it be war, some non-violent strategy, or something in between, any action that doesn’t include the explicit goal of creating a new form of government for the thirteen colonies by which the possibility of living under a monarchy is eliminated would be an action that I would not advocate. In other words, war doesn’t have to be the answer, but becoming independent must be the result.

    No more unjust wars is something we can certainly agree on.

    Jonathan

  6. Julian says:

    I’m from NJ and am familiar with the setting of this post. While I agree that thinking about the Revolutionary War critically is laudable, I disagree with your position both at the macro and micro level. On the macro level, I see Bastiat relevant in this discussion. Bastiat speaks of all the positive consequences that are unseen after statist interventions, but here I am speaking of a corollary, all of the positive consequences that can be seen after liberation. Here are a few concretes: the invention of the airplane, skyscrapers, the automobile, and the industrial revolution (for more concretes refer to “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”). In my view, modern Canada and Europe are much more humane and technologically advanced today because of revolutionary America, and more broadly, Enlightenment politics put into practice.

    On the micro level, I like that you bring attention to the list of grievances, which is the most important part. However, particulars cannot be treated as universals. Their list of grievances aren’t good for all men and for all times. In our time period, the list in the declaration *is not* enough to start a war. Our lives are too comfortable today thanks to the industrial and computer revolutions. It wouldn’t be worth it to lose life and limb in order to risk our standard of living and comfort. But before the industrial revolution, it *could* have been worth it, and it definitely was for those who fought and won.

    To dramatize my disagreement a little bit, Leonard Peikoff writes in “The DIM Hypothesis” that the ancient Spartans saved the birth of philosophy by fighting the Persians to the death. The revolutionary army would not have fought under such suicidal odds, and definitely you and I would not have taken up arms. Yet on the macro level, the Spartans saved the West, and on the micro level, they didn’t have the (pre- or post-industrial) comforts of tea, carriages, cars, or computers, so their standards realistically had to be lower than ours–they had less to lose, and more to gain from war–as the standards for war were appropriately lower for the colonies than they could and should be today.

    Here is an interesting article which posits that the pre-industrial technology of colonial America were hand-me-downs of the Middle Ages (if true, the list of grievances would have been a strangle in the cradle and felt more acutely by would-be colonial entrepreneurs trying to better their own immediate lives and that of their fellows just preceding the Industrial Revolution):
    http://www.engr.psu.edu/mtah/articles/newold.htm

  7. irfankhawaja says:

    Julian,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve been at the TAS Grad Seminar, and just got back, hence the delay in responding.

    The question I was addressing was whether it was justified for the colonists to go to war with Britain in 1776. Put in Objectivist terms, that becomes: was it justified, on egoistic grounds, for a mass of colonists to have waged war against Britain in 1776, where the number in question was sufficient to defeat Britain? If you put the question that way, I think the macro level becomes irrelevant. The question is one about what it is rational for individuals to do given their own context of knowledge and the benefits they will gain by fighting. The macro level you cite is one that goes beyond their context of knowledge, and cites benefits others would get. So it can’t bear on the rationality of their deciding to fight.

    That brings us to the micro level in your second paragraph. I agree that the list of particulars in the declaration wouldn’t be sufficient to start a war in our time, but I don’t see why it would have been sufficient in theirs. Yes, they were less comfortable than we are. But that underscores the fact that fighting a war would have been more costly for them–more miserable, more lethal, more painful, more lasting in its adverse effects. They had no medivacs, no Walter Reed Army Hospitals, no prosthetics, no anesthetics, no Meals Ready to Eat, etc. The Continental Army was so poorly equipped that it was not clear [at the time to its leaders that]* it could have won the war. It won in part with French help, but that help created an entangling alliance that created its own problems later in history. So it seems to me that the standard has to be set very high before one starts a war, whether in the 18th century or the 21st. The continentals may have been tough, but they weren’t superhuman. If you’re being asked to put your life on the line, the reasons have to be very clear, the gain has to be highly probable, and the complicating factors minimal. As I said elsewhere, I agree that by 1777, there was reason for, say, New Jerseyans to resist the Hessians. But that isn’t quite the same as joining the Continental Army to fight for America.

    I haven’t read Peikoff’s DIM Hypothesis yet, but I’m very skeptical of the idea that one has much to gain from war simply because one starts from a pre-industrial standard of living and has less to lose. Generally speaking, I don’t see much of a connection between the benefits of industrial civilization and the justifiability of war. The justifiability of war turns on the fact and nature of aggression one faces. A pre-industrial society could justifiably fight an industrial aggressor without hope of making any industrial-level gains. An industrial society could conceivably decide to fight an aggressor even if doing so imperiled prosperity. The issue is self-defense, not industrialization.

    Thanks for the link to the article; I’ll get to it when I get some time. If your description is correct, it would imply that there is no bright line that separates pre-industrial from industrial society. An interesting thought, worth reflecting on.

    Irfan

    *Added after posting.

  8. […] secular holidays are mostly a joke. I’ve trashed Columbus Day on this blog, Independence Day on another, and I endorse Christopher Hitchens’s description of New Year’s Eve as the […]

  9. […] British rule over the American colonies was certainly unjust, I don’t mean to suggest that I regard the Revolutionary War as justified. I don’t think it was, so I don’t think the Fourth of July ought to be a matter of […]

  10. […] a sorry set of excuses for holidays. I’ve trashed Columbus Day on this blog (more than once), Independence Day on another, and I endorse Christopher Hitchens’s description of New Year’s Eve as the […]

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