The Positive Externalities of the American Revolution
I used to line up an article every month for Econlib, from 2008 to 2019. My favorite was one by Jeff Hummel in 2018. It’s titled “Benefits of the American Revolution: An Exploration of Positive Externalities.”
Here are the opening two paragraphs:
It has become de rigueur, even among libertarians and classical liberals, to denigrate the benefits of the American Revolution. Thus, libertarian Bryan Caplan writes: “Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?… [W]hen 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.”1 One can also find such challenges reflected in recent mainstream writing, both popular and scholarly.
In fact, the American Revolution, despite all its obvious costs and excesses, brought about enormous net benefits not just for citizens of the newly independent United States but also, over the long run, for people across the globe. Speculations that, without the American Revolution, the treatment of the indigenous population would have been more just or that slavery would have been abolished earlier display extreme historical naivety. Indeed, a far stronger case can be made that without the American Revolution, the condition of Native Americans would have been no better, the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies would have been significantly delayed, and the condition of European colonists throughout the British empire, not just those in what became the United States, would have been worse than otherwise.
[Historian Gordon] Wood concludes that “Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world…. The Revolution not only radically changed the personal and social relations of people… but also destroyed aristocracy as it had been understood in the Western world for at least two millennia. The Revolution brought respectability and even dominance to ordinary people long held in contempt and gave dignity to their menial labor in a manner unprecedented in history and to a degree not equaled elsewhere in the world. The Revolution did not just eliminate monarchy and create republics; it actually reconstituted what Americans meant by public or state power.”
Here’s a comment Jeff made in 2018 in response to some commenters:
Even after military conflict broke out in April 1775, a majority of the Continental Congress did not favor independence until February 1776, and it was a slim majority. The first colony to actually instruct its delegates to vote for independence was North Carolina the following April. Thus we have nearly a year of hard fighting during which a majority of Patriots favored and expected to achieve reconciliation within the British Empire. It was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in January 1776, that ultimately tipped the scales in favor of secession.
Also the difference between the French and American Revolutions can be overdrawn. The American Revolution admittedly had no reign of terror, but the treatment of Loyalists could be quite appalling, with disturbing instances of brutality and killing. Given that many Loyalists fought for the British, some historians have started referring to the Revolution as a civil war, a term neither of you [the two people he’s responding to] consider. At the end of the War for Independence, an estimated 50,000 Loyalists left the United States, out of total population of 2.5 million. The French Revolution generated as many as 130,000 émigrés and deportees, out of a total population of 25 million. Thus the American Revolution produced refugees at almost four times the rate of the French Revolution. And while many émigrés eventually returned to France, very few Loyalists returned to the U.S.
I still maintain that the American Revolution brought momentous benefits, but let us not overlook its costs and excesses.
The picture above is of me with my Betsy Ross flag in front our house. I will be carrying it in the July 4 parade in Monterey later today.
Happy, happy July 4.