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?
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?
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.
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.