Thursday


This cartoon from 1754 is attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed on 04 July 1776, it was a manifesto to explain, defend, and justify the action of the Founders in breaking from Great Britain and founding an independent political entity. The boldness of this gambit is difficult to appreciate today. Benjamin Franklin said after signing the document, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” It was a very real possibility that the Founders would be rounded up and hanged on the gallows. They had signed their names to a treasonous document, which was published for all to read.

Any Royalist with a grudge could have taken down the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and used it as a checklist for revenge and retaliation, even if the Founders were successful. And, had the British put down the rebellion, execution would have been certain. Less than a hundred years previously, following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, the Bloody Assizes executed hundreds and transported hundreds more to the West Indies under the auspices of Judge Jeffreys, made Lord Chancellor by King James for his services to the crown in the wake of the rebellion. The spirit of the assizes had not subsided, as less fifty years later, the Bloody Assize of 1814 in Canada saw eight executed during the War of 1812 for aiding the Americans. If the revolution had failed, the bloody assizes of 1776 would have been legendary.

To rebel against what the world could only consider a “rightful sovereign” demanded that some explanation be given the world, hence the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” was a necessary diplomatic move, perhaps the first diplomatic initiative undertaken by what would become the United States of America. But at the same time that a world ruled by monarchs and autocrats, Tsars and Popes, kings and princes, emperors and aristocrats, Caliphs and satraps, would not look kindly upon the rebellion of subject peoples, the Founders could also expect that, in the Great Power competition, other powers would come forward to help the nascent nation simply in order to counter the presumed interests of Britain. The Declaration of Independence provides plausible deniability for any who came to the assistance of the rebels that the cause of the rebels was not mere lèse-majesté that other sovereigns should want to see punished.

The litany of abuses (eighteen items are explicitly noted in the Declaration; item thirteen is followed by nine sub-headings detailing “pretended legislation”) attributed to George III were intended to definitively establish the tyranny of the then-present King of England. I doubt anyone was convinced by the charges made against the British crown. If someone supported the crown or supported the colonies, they probably did so for pretty transparent motives of self-interest, and not because of any abstract belief in the divine right of kings on the one hand, or, on the other hand, any desire to engage in humanitarian intervention given the suffering the colonists experienced as a consequence of the injuries, usurpations, and oppressions of King George III.

King George III made an official statement later the same year, before the Revolutionary War had been won or lost by either side, and the crown’s North American colonies south of Canada might rightly have been said be “in play”: His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to Both Houses of Parliament on Thursday, October 31, 1776. A number of newspaper responses to the Declaration of Independence can be found in British reaction to America’s Declaration of Independence by Mary McKee. I don’t know of any point-by-point response to the grievances detailed in the Declaration of Independence, but I would be surprised if there weren’t any such from contemporary sources.

Subsequent history has not had much to say about these specific appeals to a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. The Declaration of Independence has had an ongoing influence, and might even be said to be one of the great manifestos of the Enlightenment, but the emphasis has always fallen on the ringing claims of the first few sentences. These sentences include a number of phrases that have become some of the most famous political rhetoric of western civilization. The litany of grievances, however, have not been among these famous phrases. The idea of taxation without representation occurs in the form of “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” but the more familiar form does not occur in the Declaration.

If the Declaration has intended as plausible deniability for any power that assisted the rebellious colonies, that is not the message that has been transmitted by history. The message that got through was the forceful statement of Enlightenment ideals for political society. In this, the colonies, later the United States, was eventually successful in their appeal to the opinion of mankind. Few today dispute these ideals, even if they act counter to them, whereas other statements of ideals of political society — say, The Communist Manifesto, for instance — have both their defenders and their detractors. It is no small accomplishment to have formulated ideals with this degree of currency.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Pulling Down the Statue Of King George III, New York City, Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, 1852-1853

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Monday


Charles Willson Peale's portrait of George Washington, 1776.

Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington, 1776.

The title of this post, “The Revolutionary Republic,” I have taken over from Ned Blackhawk from his lectures A History of Native America. No doubt others have used the phrase “revolutionary republic” earlier, but Blackhawk’s lectures were the context in which the idea of a revolutionary republic really struck me. Blackhawk contextualized the American revolution among other revolutionary republics, specifically the subsequent revolutions in France and Haiti. In his book, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Blackhawk has this to say about the Haitian Revolution:

“…in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, contests among New France, New Spain, British North America, and the United States redrew the imperial boundaries of North America in nearly every generation. In 1763, French Louisiana, for example, became part of New Spain. Reverting to France in 1801, it was sold to the United States for a song in 1803 after Haiti’s bloody revolution doomed Napoleon’s ambition to rebuild France’s once expansive American empire.”

Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 150

The backdrop of the geopolitical contest that Blackhawk mentions — the “Great Game” of the Enlightenment, as it were — was the Seven Years’ War (what we in the US sometimes call “The French and Indian War,” though this term can be reserved to refer exclusively to the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War), in which future first President of the United States, George Washington, fought as a major in the militia of the British Province of Virginia. The Seven Years’ War is sometimes called the first global war, as it was fought between a British-led coalition and a French-led coalition across the known world at the time.

The Seven Years’ War was the final culmination of imperial conflict between France and the British Empire, and the defeat of the French ultimately led to the triumph of the British Empire and its worldwide extent and command of the seas in the nineteenth century. As an interesting counterfactual, we might consider a world in which the British has triumphed earlier over the French, and had established unquestioned supremacy by the time of the American Revolution. Under these changed circumstances, it would have been even more difficult than it was for the American colonists to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War, and as it was, it was a close-run thing. The colonial forces only won because they fought an ongoing guerrilla campaign against a distant power, which had to project force across the Atlantic Ocean in order to engage with the colonials.

Even at the disadvantage of having to send its soldiers overseas, the British won most of the battles of the Revolutionary War, and the colonials triumphed in the end because they wore down British willingness to invest blood and treasure in their erstwhile colony. When the colonials did win a battle, the Battle of Saratoga, the British made a political decision to cut their losses and focus on other lands of their global empire. From the British perspective, the loss of their American colonies was the price to be paid for empire — an empire must choose its battles, and not allow itself to get tied down in a quagmire among hostile natives — and it was the right decision at the time, as the British Empire was to continue to expand for another hundred years or more. With the French out of the way (defeated by the British in the Seven Years’ War, and then further crippled by the Haitian Revolution, as Blackhawk pointed out), and the American colonies abandoned, the British could move on to the real prizes: China and india.

The Seven Years’ War was the “big picture” geopolitical context of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution itself triggered the next “big picture” political context for what was to follow, which was the existence of revolutionary republics, and panic on the part of the ruling class of Europe that the revolutionary fervor would spread among their own peoples in a kind of revolutionary contagion. One cannot overemphasize the impact of the revolutionary spirit, which struck visceral fear into the hearts of Enlightenment-era constitutional monarchs much as the revolutionary spirit of communism struck fear into the hearts of enlightened democratic leaders a hundred years later. The revolutionary spirit of one generation became the reactionary spirit of the next generation. Applying this geopolitical rule of thumb to our own age, we would expect that the last revolutionary spirit became reactionary (as certainly did happen with communism), while the revolutionary spirit of the present will challenge the last revolutionary regimes in a de facto generational conflict (and this didn’t exactly happen).

The political principles of the revolutionary republics of the Enlightenment came to represent the next great political paradigm, which is today the unquestioned legitimacy of popular sovereignty. All the royal houses that were spooked by the revolutions in the British colonies, France, and Haiti were eventually either themselves deposed or eased into a graceful retirement as powerless constitutional monarchs. So they were right to be spooked, but the mechanisms by which their countries were transformed into democratic republics were many and various, so it was not revolution per se that these regimes needed to fear, but the implacable progress of an idea whose time had come.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Revolutionary Man

4 July 2012

Wednesday


It is always a pleasure to celebrate the armed struggle of the American people against the oppression of the Old World, with its true believers in autocracy, hierarchy, patronage, and privilege, and its Old World tolerance of corruption, ineptitude, and failed institutions.

The emergence of revolutionary man — Homo revolutionibus — in history is no small matter. This idea that was first given concrete embodiment in the American Revolution has gone on to shape not only the politics of the world ever since that time, but moreover to shape the very idea of humanity itself — what humanity is, what humanity ought to be, and what humanity might reasonably hope to become.

In the PBS documentary Liberty! The American Revolution, there is a quote that makes clear the anthropological dimensions of the advent of the American Revolution:

As the British army fell to the American rebels commanded by Washington and laid down their arms at Saratoga, they saw for the first time the face of their conquerors. Row upon row of plainly dressed citizen soldiers. Old men and young boys. People of all colors. Ordinary Americans. A British officer would write that he felt he was “looking at a new race of men.”

I tried to find the original source of this quote, but I have not yet been successful, so that British officer in question must remain nameless for the time being — a nameless, faceless representative of the Old World tradition of individuals subordinated to arbitrary royal authority. Yet this British officer was not so blind to an incommensurable paradigm that he could not see the emergence of something new in history.

A parallel formulation of the American project as productive of a “new race of men” is found in Crèvecoeur:

Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.

Great changes in the world indeed. Such changes have already occurred, and further changes continue to shake both the New World and the Old. Wherever today there is entrenched privilege and power, there is also to be found a popular insurrection against this entrenched power. It does not matter the extent to which power seeks to co-opt the masses and to take for itself the mantle of the people — such charades are easily seen through by revolutionary man.

To what extent may we identify this New Man, revolutionary man, with that other New Man of the modern world, the Übermensch? In other words (the words of Borges, to be specific), to what extent are all of us of the Western Hemisphere vernacular supermen?

Precisely to the extent that we seek to make ourselves over as revolutionary men and to overcome the corrupt, all-too-corrupt taint of the Old World and its old institutions that have no claim upon us but tradition, revolutionary man and the Übermensch are one and the same.

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