Sunday, July 29, 2007

Was the American Revolution Bad for America?

I have been thinking about some of the implications of Michael Moore's Sicko. Specifically, why is the United States the only nation in the developed world without some sort of equitable, government-funded health care?

I am just wondering if we can look back to the American Revolution for some answers. To be exact, did the American Revolution undermine the modern United States' willingness to engage in the sort of social democracies we see throughout Europe, Canada, and increasingly other nations as well?

I don't have a solid answer for this. But I'm going to play a little counterfactual game to help think about these issues.

Let's say the American Revolution fails. What happens?

We are Canada.

Is that so bad? I don't think so.

Sure, Britain would have executed Jefferson, Washington, and the gang. That would have been terrible. But what happens after that?

First, the Declaration of Independence is still around. That wasn't going away. If those words have inspired movements around the world, they probably still would have.

Second, Britain would have solved the U.S.' slavery problem. Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833. Slavery was never as profitable in the US as it was in the Caribbean. So the US experience likely would not have affected British opinion. In addition, if we assume that the US becomes a free nation in 1867, the same year as Canada, that gives us 34 years to figure out our race relations. Do we still have racial problems? Of course. But they would be different, at the very least.

Third is the issue of westward expansion. Frontier issues played a major role in the Revolution, one that is underplayed in traditional narratives. The Proclamation of 1763, not allowing settlers access to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, really made colonists angry. We wanted to kill Indians and steal their lands. That may sound too blunt, but it is most certainly true. As Richard White has shown in The Middle Ground, the worst thing that happened to the Indians of the Ohio Valley was the American victory in the Revolution. The British didn't care about native rights of course. But they didn't want to pay for frontier wars. With the British still in charge, perhaps you see a situation between Native Americans and whites similar to that in Canada. It's still bad. But it's not as bad. It's probably not genocide.

Plus, we probably would not have Texas today. The American Southwest would quite possibly still be part of Mexico. Maybe when the Latin American nations throw off Spain, the British go in and take a bunch of Mexico. Quite a reasonable hypothesis. But in any case, you don't see a bunch of pro-slavery expansionists go into Texas to bring slavery there. You don't see a war started to protect that slavery. And most certainly, Texas is not TEXAS, in the way it is today. It's hard to argue that Texas is good for the nation.

I think more generally, what you would have seen with a US that remains part of Britain until the 1860s is a maturing of society. A growing industrial base, slowly evolving set of political rights, increased education and wealth--all of this would have made for a more stable nation than what we saw in the 1780s. As Gordon Wood has shown in Revolutionary Characters, among other writings, the Revolution got away from the Founding Fathers. We might think of this as good, as those men were elitists who felt uncomfortable with many of the pioneering aspects of American democracy as it developed in the early 19th century. But with that democracy also came a lot of bad things--the overwhelming power of money over politics, unbridled westward expansion, anti-intellectualism, the popular killing of Indians, the increasing entrenchment of slavery, seemingly endless waves of evangelicalism, etc., etc.

It's at least possible that the pushing up of the average money-grubbing white male to the top of the political process at a very early age has helped create a society focused on the individual over the group, on personal wealth over social wealth, on money over education, on white over black.

Finally, we wouldn't be basing our whole political system in the present on trying to interpret (or misinterpret) what a bunch of rich white men thought over 200 years ago. We wouldn't be trying to fit everything we do into the Constitution. We would be focusing on governing for the present, not the past.

No doubt, you can poke holes in my argument. But I think it's at least worth considering whether the American Revolution was really a good thing for the United States. It's a counterfactual, presentist argument, but one that is at least worth mulling over for awhile. And if you don't like my argument, what better answers are there for why the United States is so different from the rest of the western world when it comes to creating a decent society for all citizens?