Monday, August 06, 2007

American myths, the Glorious Revolution, and the real grievances

Or, another American myth bites the dust. That myth would be that the American revolution was the "shot heard round the world" of freedom against absolutism. Truth is, and this is what the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was all abut, Absolutism had been considerably weakened in England by that time. The real strike against absolutism had succeeded when Wilhelm II of Orange, king of the Netherlands, landed in England and took the crown without either imposing a Republic or imposing personal absolutist rule under himself. He signed a bill of rights, created fundamental social change, and ended the medieval system in England through this.

In the past, the only options were either a medieval state, organized with a King who had the final say in things, lords below him, and virtual representation of the rest of the people by local eminences who sat in the House of Commons, or a Republic that threw out all traditions and principles that had been worked up over the previous centuries. The Glorious Revolution introduced the idea into English political life that there were principles that mattered divorced from the social structure, that could coexist with the political life of the country without totally destroying it. This in turn lead to the elaboration and debate about what those principles really were which lead to the development of the modern system of politics.

That was what ended the real possibility of a dictatorship in England. What happened with the thirteen colonies was something else altogether.

The thing that touched off the American Revolution was the strengthening of the colonial system over the American colonies. The colonial system was the economic system that had been developed by England, which was similar to the ones evolved by Spain and France, that put colonies in subordinate roles as producers of raw materials and consumers of finished goods made by the country the colonies were attached to. This meant that Americans couldn't consume tea from the West Indies anymore because that tea was destined for the English and Continental markets, where it would make money. Instead, people in the U.S. had to have East Indian tea, which was more expensive. The point was for the profits from the West Indian tea to not be diluted by the cheap consumption of it by Americans. You could say the same thing about the taxes. They were meant to extract money for the purpose of the colonial administration of the colonies. There wasn't representation for either the economic restructuring or the imposition of taxes.

However, it should be noted that in England itself at this time there would have been representation and these things wouldn't have taken place without opposition and debate. But England wanted to treat the Americas like regular colonies, not like new provinces. Previous to the mid 18th century they'd let people in the Americas pretty much do what they wanted. An example of this is the founding of Rhode Island. Rhode Island wasn't founded with authorization from the English government; instead, a group of people who had been kicked out of Massachusetts for religious reasons went into an area east of the state, that hadn't been colonized, made a treaty with the Indian tribes there, and set up their own little state, which they eventually petitioned the English Crown to legalize. America had been a place where Protestant radicals could be sent so that they wouldn't be in England to jeopardize the English monarchy. The Americans had grievances, but they weren't on the sort of world-historical scale that they portrayed them to be.

If they had wanted to, the people in the thirteen colonies could have had a limited revolution that would have ended British colonial rule but kept them associated in some way with England, as some sort of self-governing state. But what happened went a lot further. The rhetoric of the American Revolution goes way beyond that to the point where it resembles the rhetoric of the 17th century, where there was a civil war in England between the Parliament and the King that ended with Charles I being executed and ten years of England as a Republic, as well as the Glorious Revolution that ended the traditional concept of Kingship in England forever. Historian Gordon S. Wood, author of "The Radicalism of the American Revolution", said that what the people in the future U.S. were doing was attempt to do there what hadn't been done in England. They felt that the Glorious Revolution hadn't gone far enough, and they were extreme partisans of Parliament in the English Civil War. So, on top of colonial grievances there as also the element of wanting to create "A New Order for the Ages", a kind of fulfillment of the anti-monarchial tendencies that had started in England in the 17th century.

If this is true, which I think it is, it means that the meaning of the American state is different than what everyone's been taught in school. Jefferson, Tom Paine, et. al. weren't really condemning an actual absolutist government that had totally trespassed on liberties. They were critiquing their status as a colony and going beyond that to question the nature of monarchy and self government.

1 comment:

lynx said...

very interesting... and also very plausible. based on my own reading a look at ethnic politcs in colonial america would seem to reinforce this view.

The Ulster Plantation was founded by none other then Oliver Cromwell (champion of the Puritans during the Glorious Revolution) at the end of the civil war, as an early settler state project designed to wipe those pesky catholics (who had been loyal to the "legitimate" heir to the throne - the Catholic King James) out of north Ireland and replace them with protestants loyal to the new explicitly Protestant English government. A generation later the reestablishment of the English Monarchy and deteriorating conditions in Ulster for non-Anglo protestants led millions of Ulster Scots to not be so loyal after all. Millions of them emigrated to the American colonies in an attempt to get as far from england as possible and many of those who stayed became involved in the early Irish nationalist movement, including the first serious attempt at an Irish Nationalist revolution under the leadership of Wolfe Tone.

Once in North America they were drastically over-represented in the continental army and the independence movement. It's not an exaggeration to say that without them the revolution would have been flatly impossible. For them the American revolution was a chance to succeed at a project very long in the making - freedom from English Monarchical rule, a project that began with the Jacobite Insurrections in Scotland, continued in Republican form under Cromwell in North Ireland, and finally succeeded with the creation of the US. The immediate grievances of king George's attempts to tighten monarchical control in the Americas were an issue, of course, but the real issue was always deeper then that.

Scottish Catholics from the Highlands and people of Welsh descent, both of whom had their own reasons to hate the English monarchy, were also dramatically over-represented in the American revolution. Half the signers of the declaration of independence, for instance, claimed Welsh ancestry even though the Welsh have always been a tiny minority in America.

Long story short, i would definitely agree with you that ideology and the unresolved questions of the Glorious Revolution in the UK had obvious impacts on the American revolution, but don't underestimate the power of Ethnic politics either. in any case, this is an interesting spin on the fairytale we usually see in US history classes.